Back in May, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke turned heads when it was revealed that he held a brief meeting with pro-Trump troll Chuck Johnson and virtual reality wunderkind Palmer Luckey. But the full cast of characters involved in putting that tête-à-tête together was even more eclectic than publicly known.
An artist who worked on the graphic novel adaptation of Clinton Cash introduced Johnson to the co-author of American Sniper to help set up the meeting.
That’s according to emails obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request from The Daily Beast.
The meeting, which was first reported by Gizmodo, took place earlier this year and brought together Luckey, Johnson, and Zinke. It was held on April 12 and, according to a previously released schedule (PDF), was officially labelled as a discussion of “border wall building plans.”
A Cabinet secretary’s time is rare. And the fact that Johnson and Luckey were able to secure it struck critics as both odd and as evidence of the ability of money to open doors. In 2014, Luckey sold his startup, Oculus VR which made virtual-reality gear, to Facebook for a whopping $2 billion.
Cash was indeed a factor, emails obtained from the Department of Interior and reviewed by The Daily Beast show. But the extent of it is not clear.
The initial person who got the ball rolling on the meeting was Brett R. Smith, a self-described “creative director, editor, artist and entrepreneur,” who works primarily in the graphic novel industry.
In an email written on April 5, Smith connected Johnson with author Scott McEwen, who co-wrote American Sniper and co-authored an autobiographical book with Zinke. On Thursday, April 6, McEwen responded: “Thanks for the intro Brett.”
Johnson, best known for his website GotNews, which recently accused the wrong person of committing a car attack at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, subsequently requested a phone call from McEwen that Friday, April 7. He followed up with him in another email on Sunday, April 9, where money was first referenced.
“Hi Scott, Palmer Luckey, who sold his company to Oculus Rift for $2.5B, wants to meet Secretary Zinke while we are in DC this week. Can you make that happen?” Johnson wrote.
McEwen forwarded the introduction message to Scott Hommel, chief of staff for Zinke and Zinke himself on April 10.
“Another Billionaire wants a meeting-up to you guys,” McEwen wrote. “I don’t know this guy, can’t confirm the alleged meeting with the pres., but confirmed he did make some serious cash recently. Tell me if you are interested in talking.”
The email appears to allude to a meeting between Luckey and President Trump. However, according to a source who requested anonymity to speak freely with The Daily Beast, Luckey visited the White House in May but did not actually meet with the president. Instead, he had an audience with former chief strategist Steve Bannon. The meeting was brief, and meant as an introduction between Bannon and the young entrepreneur. The two met once, according to the source.
Nevertheless, Zinke expressed interest in taking the meeting, emailing Caroline Boulton, special assistant to the secretary, on April 10: “Caroline. Please reach out to charles [sic].”
Boulton then appeared to have a phone call with Johnson, which she references in an email later that day scheduling a meeting from 12:30-1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 12.
On Tuesday, April 11, Boulton sent another email to Johnson where she wrote: “Would you be able to provide specifics about what regarding the Border Wall you would like to address so that we can best prepare the Secretary for your meeting?”
Johnson responded: “please tell him that Palmer Luckey is working on it with a major telecom company.”
It’s unclear what the telecom company in question is or whether that is an accurate statement from Johnson. However, Luckey has been busy setting up a new defense technology startup called Anduril Industries, staffed with two former engineers from Palantir, a software company founded by Peter Thiel. It is through that company that he has begun working on virtual border wall technology—a project he started after he left Facebook in the spring of 2017, six months after The Daily Beast reported that Luckey had invested in a 501(c)4 called Nimble America whose stated goal was “shitposting.”
Luckey has pitched it as a “new kind of defense company” that “will save taxpayer dollars while creating superior technology to keep our troops and citizens safer.” And he has been able to get the ear of politicians in pitching it. In July, Representative Will Hurd (R-TX) introduced the “Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act,” or SMART Act, which drew upon information from Luckey’s Anduril Industries.
A spokesman for Hurd did not respond to The Daily Beast when asked about the bill. Smith responded to an initial inquiry from The Daily Beast to speak for this story but did not respond to subsequent other requests when told the nature of the story. McEwen similarly did not respond to The Daily Beast when asked about scheduling the meeting.
When asked in June via email about Luckey’s new plans and whether he knew anything further about them, Johnson told The Daily Beast: “Go fuck yourself.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng