Trump presidential campaign aide Rick Gates requested proposals to create fake online identities, to use social-media manipulation and to gather intelligence to use against opponents.
WASHINGTON — A top Trump campaign official requested proposals in 2016 from an Israeli company to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation and to gather intelligence to help defeat Republican primary race opponents and Hillary Clinton, according to interviews and copies of the proposals.
The Trump campaign’s interest in the work began as Russians were escalating their effort to aid Donald Trump. Though the Israeli company’s pitches were narrower than Moscow’s interference campaign and appear unconnected, the documents show that a senior Trump aide saw the promise of a disruption effort to swing voters in Trump’s favor.
The campaign official, Rick Gates, sought one proposal to use bogus personas to target and sway 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention by attacking Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Trump’s main opponent at the time. Another proposal describes opposition research and “complementary intelligence activities” about Clinton and people close to her, according to copies of the proposals obtained by The New York Times and interviews with four people involved in creating the documents.
A third proposal by the company, Psy-Group, which is staffed by former Israeli intelligence operatives, sketched out a monthslong plan to help Trump by using social media to help expose or amplify division among rival campaigns and factions. The proposals, part of what Psy-Group called “Project Rome,” used code names to identify the players — Trump was “Lion” and Clinton was “Forest.” Cruz, who Trump campaign officials feared might lead a revolt over the Republican presidential nomination, was “Bear.”
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There is no evidence that the Trump campaign acted on the proposals, and Gates ultimately was uninterested in Psy-Group’s work, a person with knowledge of the discussions said, in part because other campaign aides were developing a social media strategy. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, did meet in August 2016 with Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s eldest son.
Investigators working for Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s campaign to disrupt the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates conspired, have obtained copies of the proposals and questioned Psy-Group employees, according to people familiar with those interviews.
The scope of the social media campaigns, essentially a broad effort to sow disinformation among Republican delegates and general election voters, was more extensive than the work typically done by campaign operatives to spread the candidate’s message on digital platforms. The proposal to gather information about Clinton and her aides has elements of traditional opposition research, but it also contains cryptic language that suggests using clandestine means to build “intelligence dossiers.”
Gates first heard about Psy-Group’s work during a March 2016 meeting at the Mandarin Oriental hotel along the Washington waterfront with George Birnbaum, a Republican consultant with close ties to current and former Israeli government officials. Gates had joined the Trump campaign days earlier with Paul Manafort, his longtime business partner, to try to prevent a revolt of Republican delegates from Trump toward Cruz, who was the favored candidate among the party’s establishment.
According to Birnbaum, Gates expressed interest during that meeting in using social media influence and manipulation as a campaign tool, most immediately to try to sway Republican delegates toward Trump.
“He was interested in finding the technology to achieve what they were looking for,” Birnbaum said. Through a lawyer, Gates declined to comment.
The special counsel’s office indicted Manafort and Gates last year on multiple charges of financial fraud and tax evasion. Gates pleaded guilty to several of the charges this year, and he is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
It is unclear whether the Project Rome proposals describe work that would violate laws regulating foreign participation in American elections. Psy-Group hired Covington & Burling, a Washington-based law firm, to conduct a legal review. Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. diplomat and a partner at the firm who participated in the legal review, declined to comment on its conclusions.
Birnbaum was a protégé of Arthur Finkelstein, the legendary Republican political operative, and has spent years as a consultant working on behalf of candidates in foreign elections. In 1996, Birnbaum helped Finkelstein engineer Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres to become the prime minister of Israel.
Since then, Birnbaum has worked extensively as a campaign consultant for Israeli politicians and has developed a network of contacts with current and former Israeli security officials. He served as a foreign policy adviser to the 2016 presidential campaign of Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who is now the secretary of housing and urban development.
Birnbaum appeared to initiate the contact with Gates, asking for his email address from Eckart Sager, a political consultant who had worked with both men, to pitch Gates on a technology that could be used by Gates’ and Manafort’s clients in Eastern Europe. Sager’s name emerged this year in a filing by Mueller’s team, which claimed that Manafort had tried to influence Sager’s court testimony in the special counsel’s case against Manafort.
After the hotel meeting with Gates in March 2016, Birnbaum worked directly with Psy-Group employees to refine the proposals for the Trump campaign, according to people familiar with the work.
The proposals all promise the utmost secrecy, including the use of code names and password-protected documents. Filled with jargon and buzzwords, they sketch out a vigorous campaign where Psy-Group employees would conduct the tedious work of creating messages that could influence delegates based on their personalities.
The first document, dated April 2016, said that the company “was asked to provide a proposal” for “campaign intelligence and influence services.” Psy-Group promised that “veteran intelligence officers” would use various methods to assess the leanings of the roughly 5,000 delegates to the Republican nominating convention.
After scouring social media accounts and all other available information to compile a dossier on the psychology of any persuadable delegate, more than 40 Psy-Group employees would use “authentic-looking” fake online identities to bombard up to 2,500 targets with specially tailored messages meant to win them over to Trump.
The messages would describe Cruz’s “ulterior motives or hidden plans,” or they would appear to come from former Cruz supporters or from influential individuals with the same background or ideology as a target. The barrage of messages would continue for months and include “both online and offline” approaches, even telephone calls.
Psy-Group also said that it would obtain “unique intel” by different means, including “covert sources” and “tailored avatars.”
Each approach would “look authentic and not part of the paid campaign,” the proposal promised. The price tag for the work was more than $3 million. To carry out the plan, Psy-Group intended to double its size, hiring an additional 50 employees — some of them American citizens — and renting new office space, according to former employees of the company.
A second proposal focused on gathering information about Clinton and 10 of her associates through publicly available data as well as unspecified “complementary intelligence activities.” Psy-Group promised to prepare a comprehensive dossier on each of the targets, including “any actionable intelligence.”
A third document emphasized “tailored third-party messaging” aimed at minority, suburban female and undecided voters in battleground states. It promised to create and maintain fake online personas that would deliver messages highlighting Trump’s merits and Clinton’s weaknesses or revealing “rifts and rivalries within the opposition.”
Though it appears that Trump campaign officials declined to accept any of the proposals, Zamel pitched the company’s services in at least general terms during a meeting on Aug. 3, 2016, at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. That meeting, revealed in May by The Times, was also attended by George Nader, an emissary from the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, and by Erik Prince, a Republican donor and the founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater.
Former Psy-Group employees said that, in anticipation of the Trump Tower meeting, Zamel asked them to prepare an updated version of the third proposal. A lawyer for Zamel said that Zamel had not personally discussed specific proposals with Donald Trump Jr. or anyone else from the Trump campaign.
“Mr. Zamel never pitched, or otherwise discussed, any of Psy-Group’s proposals relating to the U.S. elections with anyone related to the Trump campaign, including not with Donald Trump Jr., except for outlining the capabilities of some of his companies in general terms,” said the lawyer, Marc Mukasey.
Nader and Zamel have given differing accounts over whether Zamel ultimately carried out the social media effort to help the Trump campaign and why Nader paid him $2 million after the election, according to people who have discussed the matter with the two men.
The reason for the payment has been of keen interest to Mueller, according to people familiar with the matter.
It is unclear how and when the special counsel’s office began its investigation into Psy-Group’s work, but FBI agents have spent hours interviewing the firm’s employees. This year, federal investigators presented a court order to the Israel Police and the Israeli Ministry of Justice to confiscate computers in Psy-Group’s former offices in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv.
The company is now in liquidation.