Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker:
Psy-Group’s larger ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. During the 2016 Presidential race, the company pitched members of Donald Trump’s campaign team on its ability to influence the results. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, even asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to offer Zamel’s services to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The effort to drum up business included brash claims about the company’s skills in online deception. The posturing was intended to attract clients—but it also attracted the attention of the F.B.I. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been examining the firm’s activities as part of his investigation into Russian election interference and other matters.
Psy-Group’s talks with Benzeevi, after the 2016 election, spurred the company to draw up a plan for developing more business at the state and local levels. No election was too small. One company document reported that Psy-Group’s influence services cost, on average, just three hundred and fifty thousand dollars—as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour. The new strategy called for pitching more than fifty individuals and groups, including the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and major super pacs. The firm published a provocative brochure featuring an image of a goldfish with a shark fin tied to its back, below the tagline “Reality is a matter of perception.” Another brochure showed a cat that cast a lion’s shadow and listed “honey traps” among the firm’s services. (In the espionage world, a honey trap often involves deploying a sexually attractive operative to induce a target to provide information.)
Psy-Group put together a proposal for Benzeevi, promising “a coordinated intelligence operation and influence campaign” in Tulare to preserve Kumar’s seat on the hospital board. Operatives would use fake identities to “uncover and deliver actionable intelligence” on members of the community who appeared to be leading the recall effort, and would use unattributed Web sites to mount a “negative campaign” targeting “the opposition candidate.” All these activities, the proposal assured, would appear to be part of a “grass roots” movement in Tulare. The operation was code-named Project Mockingjay, a reference to a fictional bird in the “Hunger Games” novels, known for its ability to mimic human sounds….
Zamel had another opportunity to pitch his services in early August, 2016, when Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm, helped arrange a meeting at Trump Tower among Zamel, Nader, and Donald Trump, Jr. (Prince, whose sister Betsy DeVos became Trump’s Education Secretary, was a major Trump donor and had access to members of his team.) In the meeting, Zamel told Trump, Jr., that he supported his father’s campaign, and talked about Psy-Group’s influence operations. (Zamel’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, played down the encounter, insisting that Zamel made no formal proposals during the meeting.)
Burstien said that his talks with the Trump campaign went nowhere; a representative for Zamel denied that his client engaged in any activity having to do with the election. But, according to the Nader representative, shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory. Zamel agreed to brief Nader on how the operation had worked. During that conversation, Zamel showed Nader several analytical reports, including one that described the role of avatars, bots, fake news, and unattributed Web sites in assisting Trump. Zamel told Nader, “Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” according to the Nader representative. Nader paid Zamel more than two million dollars, but never received copies of the reports, that person said.