Report: Trump aide asked Israeli firm for manipulation services

New York Times: Rick Gates asked Israeli company to create fake online identities, gather info on Republican opponents, Hillary Clinton.

Ben Ariel , | updated: 7:11 AM


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, The New York Times reported on Monday, citing 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, according to the report. 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 Senator 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 months-long plan to help Trump by using social media to help expose or amplify division among rival campaigns and factions, according to the report.

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.”

The report stressed that there is no evidence that the Trump campaign acted on the proposals, and Gates ultimately was uninterested in Psy-Group’s work, 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.

Gates, an associate of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, faces criminal charges in Mueller’s Russia investigation. Gates has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

He reportedly 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.

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 told The New York Times. Through a lawyer, Gates declined to comment.

Gates and Manafort, who were indicted on multiple charges of financial fraud and tax evasion, have agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.

It is unclear whether the Project Rome proposals describe work that would violate laws regulating foreign participation in American elections, noted The New York Times.