A few months into Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his team reviewed a strange pitch. It came from a company called Psy Group, which had links to Israeli intelligence, and it laid out how fake social media accounts could manipulate the American election. That outreach caught the attention of Robert Mueller’s team. And now, the Senate Intelligence Committee—which is still investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election—has reached out to the company’s founder for questioning, according to two sources familiar with the outreach.
Royi Burstien, the founder and ex-CEO of Psy Group, isn’t alone, according to two people familiar with the matter; the committee also sent an inquiry to Joel Zamel—a self-styled Mark Zuckerberg of the national-security world who reportedly owned Psy Group. The Israeli-Australian discussed Psy Group’s “Campaign Intelligence and & Influence Services Proposal” with Donald Trump Jr. during the campaign, and campaign staff also reached out to the company about social media manipulation to help Trump win the White House.
Zamel also attended meetings during the transition that included discussions about how to undermine and ultimately take down the regime in Iran, according to communications reviewed by The Daily Beast. Top Trump World power brokers, including Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, were present for the talks. And a top Saudi spy, who has since taken the fall for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, participated in the talks as well.
So the nature of Trump World’s relationships with Psy Group, Zamel, and Burstien has long raised questions––especially given that another Zamel company, Wikistrat, gamed out in 2015 how a foreign government could meddle in U.S. elections, per internal documents The Daily Beast obtained. Special Counsel Mueller’s team interviewed multiple Psy Group employees, but the unredacted portions of his Russia report don’t reference the company.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s interest means the public may still learn more about the dynamics.
A spokesperson for the Senate Intelligence Committee declined to comment, citing a blanket policy against discussing witness engagements. Attorneys for Psy Group and for Zamel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Burstien did not comment for this story.
Psy Group, in liquidation as of last year, has employed a handful of people who formerly worked for and with Israeli intelligence, including Burstien. Former employees of the firm said federal agents questioned them last year about the firm’s financial structure, its ownership and its communications with Team Trump during the 2016 campaign. Several Psy Group individuals said their lawyers told them in 2018 that they were no longer of interest to the FBI.
The New York Times reported last year that former Trump campaign advisor Rick Gates reached out to Psy Group in 2016 about online manipulation plans. According to the Times, the plans, which had a price tag of about $3 million, included the possibility of Psy Group using online avatars to impact the vote. One of the proposals included intelligence officers who would use social media accounts to examine the political leanings of 5,000 delegates to the Republican National Convention, the Times reported.
In 2016, Zamel became increasingly connected to the Trump team and led conversations with transition officials and advisors, including Donald Trump Jr. and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, about his company helping other Middle Eastern players, such as Saudi Arabia, use economic, information, and military tactics for weakening the government in Tehran.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe has distinguished itself from other investigations in two ways: First, it’s been almost entirely non-controversial, for the most part avoiding the kind of criticism that Fox News hosts and congressional Republicans lobbed at Mueller’s team. And second, it’s the longest Russia probe by far; Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner announced its inception before Trump was even inaugurated. And months after the closure of Mueller’s probe, it’s still underway.
The probe is bipartisan, and free from the public internecine sniping that plagued the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation. A rare moment of controversy came in May, when news broke that the committee subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. to testify. The president responded by complaining about committee leadership, but his son ultimately met with investigators.
Warner and Burr split earlier this year on a key issue: their findings. In an interview with CBS in February, Burr said the committee had found no evidence of collusion between Trump World and the Russian government. But Warner disputed Burr’s comment. “Respectfully, I disagree,” he said, per CNN.
The probe’s scope does not overlap with Mueller’s. As The Daily Beast has reported, it is looking at matters Mueller never scrutinized, including Kremlin-backed efforts to court NRA leadership in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign.