The New York Times reported Sunday that Blackwater founder Erik Prince may run for the Senate in 2018. According to the Times, former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon has been urging the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to challenge incumbent Sen. John Barrasso in Wyoming's upcoming Republican Senate primary. A Michigan resident who's never held political office, Prince is now reportedly researching ways to establish residency in Wyoming so he can qualify for the ballot.
Prince is most well-known as the founder of Blackwater, a private security contractor that the George W. Bush administration hired to fight in the Iraq war. The mercenary army initially drew controversy for its lack of oversight, as the State Department allowed Blackwater fighters to operate outside of standard military guidelines. As the Washington Post reported in 2007, Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq were exempt from the U.S. military's rules on the use of offensive weapons and reporting shooting incidents, even though actual members of the U.S. military and other private contractors were required to abide by those rules.
"The Iraqis despised [Blackwater mercenaries], because they were untouchable," said Matthew Degn, a former senior American adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry, at the time. "They were above the law."
Eventually, three Blackwater employees were convicted of involuntary manslaughter after they shot and killed 17 civilians in Iraq in 2007, with the FBI concluding that 14 of those killings were "unjustified." A fourth mercenary was convicted of murder in connection with the same incident; however, that conviction was ultimately thrown out. The other three fighters were originally sentenced to 30 years in prison, but a federal appeals court voided those sentences — although not the convictions themselves — in August.
In April, the Washington Post reported that Prince and a "Russian close to President Vladimir Putin" had a secret meeting on the Seychelles islands less than two weeks before Trump was inaugurated. According to the Post, this meeting was reportedly brokered by a Emirati diplomat with the intent of supposedly establishing a private back channel between the Trump administration and Russia. Prince acknowledged that the meeting happened but said that it "nothing to do with the United States, with the U.S. government, with the election or with the Trump campaign."
Both Prince's spokesperson and then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stressed that Prince "had no role" in Trump's transition team. But Bloomberg, The Intercept and the Post have all claimed that Prince did advise the Trump team in an unofficial capacity, both before and during the transition, while NBC News reported in April that Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in December. Again, Prince has denied those allegations.
There's no question that Prince is a strong supporter of the president: He gave $250,000 to the official Trump campaign and related pro-Trump PACs after the Republican National Convention. He's close with Bannon as well, having given multiple radio interviews to the former Trump advisor and media tycoon.
Most recently, Prince has been advocating for private mercenaries to replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Although he hasn't explicitly said that his own mercenaries should fill this role, he told CBS in August that "anyone should compete" if the project comes up for a bid, and that his sister's role in Trump's cabinet should not exclude Prince's firm from receiving a hypothetical contract from the government.
If Prince runs for the Senate, he'll have his work cut out for him. In addition to the fact that he doesn't live in Wyoming and would almost certainly be branded a carpetbagger, he'd also have to defeat a popular Republican senator in a red state. In September 2016, Barrasso was ranked the 8th most popular senator in the Senate, and as a close ally of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he'll have significant financial resources at his disposal.