Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team sought help from former Israeli spies to help him beat rival candidates using online manipulation in the run-up to the US election in 2016.
In reports published in the New York Times, Trump’s former deputy campaign head Rick Gates asked Israeli firm Psy-Group for a quote to help the now-president defeat his Republican rivals and Democrat nominee Hilary Clinton.
The newspaper published part of the group’s proposal, shown on the firm’s letterhead, which referred to Trump by the codename “Lion”.
It reported that Psy-Group’s plan was to help Trump using social media to reinforce divisions among Republican candidates and targeting 5,000 delegates to the party’s national convention, using “sentiment analysis,” creating fake accounts and sowing disinformation. It offered to gather “complementary intelligence research” on rivals.
The firm, whose corporate brochure states “reality is a matter of perception” before promising to “shape reality,” offered Trump’s team “intensive influence activities… in order to sway them towards Lion” while recognising “the need for secrecy”.
The company is headed by former Israeli intelligence officers and the owner, Joel Zamel, met Trump’s son Don Jr in 2016. However, it is understood the Psy-Group offer was not taken up. Gates has since been indicted as part of former FBI chief Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion between Trump’s team and Russia.
Although the Israeli proposal is not believed to be part of this, it is nevertheless the first time Israeli involvement and proposed manipulation of voters in the notorious US election process has been suggested. Psy-Group leaders are understood to have been interviewed by Mueller’s team.
The firm’s proposal to Trump’s team explained how they would “create, cultivate and operate numerous online/virtual platforms and avatars to deliver the required messaging”. It describes avatars as “tailored online platforms or personas created specifically to engage and interact with the target audience”.
Psy-Group said these fake accounts would then deliver “positive reinforcement of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses” as well as “alternative messaging to highlight the weaknesses of the candidate’s opponents”.
The firm, which says it has “unique influence expertise” and boasts of its “honey traps,” later hired prestigious US law firm Covington and Burling to conduct a legal review of the project. The conclusion of the review is unknown. In response to NYT requests, both Gates and the two firms declined to comment.