PROOF OF CONSPIRACY | SETH ABRAMSON | St. Martin's Publishing Group






ON SALE 9/3/19


During the same forty-eight-hour period in March 2016 in which Donald Trump meets with his national security advisory committee for the first time, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates pitch Trump on bringing aboard Fabrizio—an employee of Finkelstein and Birnbaum—and Gates meets with Birnbaum in Washington.121 The two men discuss whether Birnbaum, with his “close ties to current and former Israeli government officials,” can link up the Trump campaign with Psy-Group.122 Gates “request[s] proposals [from Psy-Group’s Joel Zamel] to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation and to gather intelligence to help defeat . . . Clinton, according to interviews and copies of the proposals.”123 According to the New York Times, “the documents show that a senior Trump aide [Trump’s deputy campaign manager] saw the promise of a [digital] disruption effort to swing voters in Mr. Trump’s favor.”124 Because it is Birnbaum, the “senior aide” to Netanyahu who had previously co-managed one of the Israeli prime minister’s campaigns—and who the Times of Israel notes has “closely worked with a wide range of Israeli politicians over the years”—who makes the Gates-Zamel introduction, Gates and Birnbaum’s late March 2016 meeting bears many of the hallmarks of an attempt by a foreign power to tamper in the 2016 election through a trusted intermediary.125 Indeed, the chief identification the Times of Israel gives to Finkelstein and Birnbaum is as “longtime” Netanyahu advisers.126

The possibility that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to tamper with America’s 2016 presidential election is a grave one, requiring some consideration not only of whether it was within his power but in the character of the man to do so. Apropos of this inquiry, in 2018 Israeli police will recommend not just once or twice but three times that Netanyahu face criminal charges for “taking bribes, fraud, and breach of trust,” allegations that ultimately do lead to Netanyahu becoming the first sitting Israeli prime minister to face criminal charges (see chapter 10).127 The first allegation against Netanyahu involves him secretly colluding with a foreign billionaire (Australian entrepreneur James Packer) to advance his own interests; the second allegation submits that Netanyahu attempted to secretly collude with top Trump donor Sheldon Adelson in an effort to manipulate media coverage; and the third allegation, like the second, involves an attempt at clandestine collusion with a telecommunications and media conglomerate.128 Consequently, while Netanyahu has not to date been linked with his former top aide’s attempt to—possibly illegally—connect an Israeli company specializing in telecommunications and media strategy with the Trump campaign, neither can it be said that such an act of collusion would lie outside Netanyahu’s reputed sphere of activity.

As for whether interference by Zamel and Psy-Group in the 2016 election offers some additional evidence of involvement by the Israeli government, worth noting is a New York Times report confirming that Psy-Group is indeed “staffed by former Israeli intelligence operatives.”129 The Daily Beast and the Times of Israel have both reported that not just Gates but two members of “Trump’s inner circle” reached out to Psy-Group looking for election assistance; the names of these top-level Trump aides are at present unknown.130 What is known is that Zamel was so determined to get to Trump he “even asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to offer Zamel’s services to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.”131 Gingrich was at the time a member of Psy-Group’s advisory board, as was Elliott Abrams, a man Trump has since named as his special envoy “to oversee U.S. policy toward Venezuela,” per the New Yorker.132 Gingrich forwarded Zamel’s May 2016 email to Jared Kushner; as already noted, Kushner’s family is close to Netanyahu, and it is Kushner who ultimately decides, over objections from both Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort, to hire Cambridge Analytica—a decision that may well have meant, too, hiring an Israeli business intelligence firm run by Zamel.133 Zamel, for his part, admired “Trump’s vocal support for Israel and his hardline views on Iran,” according to the New Yorker, saying in his email to Gingrich that ended up in Kushner’s in-box that Psy-Group could “provide the Trump campaign with powerful tools that would use social media to advance Trump’s chances. Zamel suggested a meeting in Washington to discuss the matter further.”134 Kushner thereafter discussed the idea with Brad Parscale, then Trump’s digital campaign director; subsequently, Rick Gates requested that Zamel send additional proposals to the campaign, which the Israeli business intelligence expert did in June.135

In June 2016, the same month Zamel sends three full-length social-media disinformation campaign proposals to the Trump team, the Israeli businessman meets with MBZ adviser George Nader—whom he has known for years, having been introduced by former Dick Cheney aide John Hannah—at the very economic forum in St. Petersburg that Felix Sater had been trying to get Michael Cohen to attend, and that Deripaska associate (and Russian deputy prime minister) Sergei Prikhodko had invited Trump to attend on two separate occasions. In St. Petersburg, Zamel tells Nader that he is “trying to raise money for a social-media campaign in support of Trump”—an entreaty strongly suggesting that the Trump campaign was willing to use Zamel’s work, but not to pay for it directly, and that Zamel had reason to believe Nader’s patron MBZ, for whom Zamel was already a consultant, would be willing to secretly do so.136 And indeed, according to the New Yorker, Zamel ultimately does ask Nader for “Nader’s Gulf contacts . . . [to] contribut[e] financially.”137

According to the Times of Israel, one of the three campaigns Psy-Group proposes to the Trump team in June 2016 in response to contact with multiple top campaign advisers suggests “us[ing] fake online profiles to bombard [targets] with messages” that appear to come from American voters and decry Trump opponents’ “ulterior motives or hidden plans.” Meanwhile, a second proposal solicited by the Trump campaign would use an identical strategy to “target female minorities . . . in swing states to push them toward Trump and away from Clinton.”138 A third proposal “sketche[s] out a monthslong plan to help Mr. Trump by using social media to help expose or amplify division among rival campaigns and factions”—an idea that dovetails with the Kremlin’s effort to suppress Democratic turnout in November 2016 by exacerbating divisions between supporters of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Jill Stein.139 These proposals, submitted formally to the Trump campaign in the spring and summer of 2016 under the code name Project Rome, are thus substantively indistinguishable from the interference the Kremlin was orchestrating during the general election.

That Psy-Group knows the activities it proposes to Gates and two other top Trump aides will have to be covert is confirmed by its proposals using code words for Trump and Clinton and discussing the need for “intelligence activities”—which the proposals explicitly contrast with “open source methods”—for the plans to come off properly.140 One plan even discusses using “clandestine means to build ‘intelligence dossiers’ on Clinton,” a strategy that mirrors the one the Trump campaign will accuse the Clinton campaign of using once the Steele dossier, which outlines serious allegations of Trump-Russia collusion, is published in January 2017 by BuzzFeed News.141 That Psy-Group knows its proposals are illegal appears to be confirmed by a subsequent Times of Israel investigation, which finds that Psy-Group “was reportedly told by an American law firm that its activities would be illegal if non-Americans were involved.”142 The top brass at Psy-Group, including Zamel himself, are all foreign nationals; moreover, the Times of Israel will note that in at least one other sphere—anti-BDS (boycott-divest-sanction Israel) campaigns—Psy-Group is working covertly overseas in a way that is “known to the Israeli government, and specifically the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.”143

According to an investigative report by the Daily Beast, Rick Gates and the two unnamed aides in Trump’s “inner circle” who solicit digital campaign ideas from Psy-Group are “very, very interested” in Zamel’s proposals, despite the campaign’s future protestations to the contrary.144 These protestations, which also insist that the campaign never used Psy-Group’s services, will be challenged by several “former employees” of Psy-Group who “dispute[ ] [the] claim” that “the firm never went forward with its plan to help the [Trump] campaign.”145

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