Probe turns to Kushner’s motives in meeting with Putin ally

Ties to banker investigated
Jared Kushner at the president’s news conference with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia at the White House on May 18.
Jared Kushner at the president’s news conference with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia at the White House on May 18.

WASHINGTON — Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was looking for a direct line to President Vladimir Putin of Russia — a search that in mid-December found him in a room with a Russian banker whose financial institution was deeply intertwined with Russian intelligence, and remains under sanction by the United States.

Federal and congressional investigators are now examining what exactly Kushner and the Russian banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, wanted from each other. The banker is a close associate of Putin, but he has not been known to play a diplomatic role for the Russian leader. That has raised questions about why he was meeting with Kushner at a crucial moment in the presidential transition, according to current and former officials familiar with the investigations.

The New York Times first reported the meeting between Kushner and Gorkov in March, but the White House at the time did not explain its aim. That article quoted a White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, who said that the meeting came at the request of the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, with whom Kushner had met earlier in December at Trump Tower to discuss opening a communications channel with Russian officials during the presidential transition.

But the half-hour meeting with Gorkov since has come under increasing scrutiny. The current and former U.S. officials now say it may have been part of an effort by Kushner to establish a direct line to Putin outside of established diplomatic channels.

The meeting came as Trump was openly feuding with U.S. intelligence agencies and their conclusion that Russia had tried to disrupt the presidential election and turn it in his favor.

The Senate Intelligence Committee notified the White House in March that it planned to question Kushner about the meeting.

On Friday, citing U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports, The Washington Post reported that Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow that Kushner had proposed a secret channel and had suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications. The White House has not denied the Post report, which specified that Russian communication centers at an embassy or consulate in the United States were discussed as hosts for the secure channel.

It is not clear whether Kushner saw the Russian banker as someone who could be repeatedly used as a go-between or whether the meeting with Gorkov was designed to establish a direct, secure communications line to Putin.

The reasons the parties wanted a communications channel, and for how long they sought it, are also unclear. Several people with knowledge of the meeting with Kislyak, and who defended it, have said it was primarily to discuss how the United States and Russia could cooperate to end the civil war in Syria and on other policy issues. They also said the secure channel, in part, sought to connect Michael T. Flynn, a campaign adviser who became Trump’s first national security adviser, and military officials in Moscow.

Flynn attended the meeting at Trump Tower with Kislyak.

Yet one current and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the continuing congressional and FBI investigations said they were examining whether the channel was meant to remain open, and if there were other items on the meeting’s agenda, including lifting sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed on Russia in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Ukraine.

During the Trump administration’s first week, administration officials said they were considering an executive order to unilaterally lift the sanctions, which bar Americans from providing financing to and could limit borrowing from Gorkov’s bank, Vnesheconombank. Removing the sanctions would have greatly expanded the bank’s ability to do business in the United States.

In a statement on Monday, Hicks said that “Mr. Kushner was acting in his capacity as a transition official” in meeting with the Russians. Kushner has agreed to be interviewed by congressional investigators about the meetings, she said.

Vnesheconombank has not responded to questions about which other financial institutions and business leaders Gorkov met with while in the United States.

Trying to set up secret communications with Putin in the weeks after the election would not be illegal. Still, it is highly unusual to try to establish channels with a foreign leader that did not rely on the government’s own communications, which are secure and allow for a record of contacts to be created.

But the Trump transition was unique in its unwillingness to use the government’s communications lines and briefing material for its dealings with many foreign governments, partly because of concern that Obama administration officials might be monitoring the calls.

In addition, Kushner disclosed none of his contacts with Russians or any other foreign officials when he applied for his security clearance in January. He later amended the form to include several meetings, including those with Kislyak and Gorkov, but it is unclear whether he told the investigators who conducted his background check about the attempts to set up a back channel. His aides have said his omissions from the clearance form were accidental.

The meeting with Gorkov is now being scrutinized by the FBI as part of its ongoing investigation into alleged Russian attempts to disrupt last year’s presidential campaign, and whether any of Trump’s advisers assisted in such efforts.

His bank is controlled by members of Putin’s government, including Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev. It also has long been intertwined with Putin’s inner circle: It has been used by the Russian government to bail out oligarchs close to Putin, and has helped fund the Russian president’s pet projects, such as the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Vnesheconombank has also been used by Russian intelligence to plant spies in the United States. In March 2016, an agent of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, who was caught posing as an employee of the bank in New York, pleaded guilty to spying against the United States.

The spy, said Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, had under “the guise of being a legitimate banker, gathered intelligence as an agent of the Russian Federation in New York.”

Gorkov is a graduate of the academy of the Federal Security Service of Russia, a training ground for Russian spies. Though current and former Americans said it is unlikely that Gorkov is an active member of Russian intelligence, they said his past ties to the security services in Moscow was one of the reasons he was put in charge of the bank.

In March, both CNN and the Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Kushner had met with Gorkov because he wanted the most direct possible contact with Putin.

But days earlier, responding to questions from The Times about the meetings with Kislyak and Gorkov, Hicks said the meetings were part of an effort by Kushner to improve relations between the United States and Russia, and to identify areas of possible cooperation.

After the first meeting with Kislyak, she said at the time, the Russian ambassador asked for a follow-up discussion to “deliver a message.” Kushner sent Avrahm Berkowitz, a longtime associate and now a White House aide. At that session, Kislyak told Berkowitz that he wanted Kushner to meet Gorkov, Hicks said.

Hicks did not say at the time why Kislyak had wanted to arrange a meeting between Kushner and Gorkov. But she said then that during Kushner’s meeting with Gorkov, there was no discussion about the Kushner company’s business or about U.S. sanctions against Russian entities like Vnesheconombank.

Categories: -News-

Leave a Reply