The Kremlin and the White House have provided conflicting explanations for why President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, met privately with the CEO of a state-owned Russian bank during the transition period.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday that Kushner’s meeting with Vnesheconombank (VEB) CEO Sergey Gorkov in late December “was ordinary business,” echoing the bank’s previous claim that it had met with Kushner in his capacity as “the head of Kushner companies.”
“As part of the preparation of the new strategy, executives of Vnesheconombank met with representatives of leading financial institutes in Europe, Asia and America multiple times during 2016,” VEB told Reuters on Monday night.
“During the talks, the existing practices of foreign development banks and promising trends were discussed. … The meetings took place with a number of representatives of the largest banks and business establishments of the United States, including Jared Kushner, the head of Kushner Companies.”
That appears to conflict with the White House’s version of events, which purports that Kushner met with Gorkov as a representative of the Trump transition team.
“Jared attended the meeting in his capacity as a transition official,” a senior White House official told Business Insider on Tuesday. “Nothing of substance was discussed. There was no follow up.”
The official added that the White House statement from Monday, that Kushner took the meetings as part of his role as “the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials,” still stands.
“Given this role, [Kushner] has volunteered to speak with Chairman Burr’s Committee but has not yet received confirmation,” the official added, referring to Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Kushner’s meeting with Gorkov, the struggling bank’s CEO, came as Kushner was trying to find investors for a Fifth Avenue office building in Manhattan that is set to be heavily financed by Anbang Insurance Group, a firm with ties to the Chinese government. But White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks told The Times on Monday that the “Kushner Tower” project wasn’t discussed during his meeting with Gorkov.
The seemingly conflicting characterizations of the meeting, which was not disclosed publicly until Monday, raise more questions about what kind of contact Trump’s associates had with Russian officials through the latter half of 2016, as Russia was attempting to sway the outcome of the election in Trump’s favour.
Kushner also met with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, in December at Trump Tower with Gen. Michael Flynn. Kislyak set up the meeting between Kushner and Gorkov, according to The New York Times.
The circumstances surrounding Kushner’s meetings with Gorkov are murky not only because its purpose remains unclear, but also because V
nesheconombank was sanctioned by the US in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea.
“It’s an unusual/more significant meeting given that Vnesheconombank was on the sanctions list,” Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group, said in an email. “The obvious reason would be that they hoped for better treatment under the Trump administration.”
“We know that was the content of Flynn’s discussions with the ambassador — which he specifically lied about,” Bremmer added, referring to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after reports emerged that he had discussed the issue of US sanctions on Russia with Kislyak despite promises to Vice President Mike Pence, and the public, that he hadn’t.
“Those sanctions weren’t as bad as the tanking oil price, but they were a significant hit to the Russian economy, Bremmer said. “Removing them would have been a priority for anyone close to the Kremlin. And Jared was the most important interlocutor for Trump on foreign policy at that point.”
Indeed, Vnesheconombank had huge success between 2007 and 2014, but came crashing down when oil prices tanked and Obama leveled sanctions. By February 2016, the bank — whose stated official mission is to “take efforts to make the Russian economy more competitive, diversify it, and foster investment” — was struggling to find enough cash to stay afloat. Its bailout needs had increased to $US16 billion between 2016 and 2020, Reuters reported.
That was particularly vexing to Putin, who used the bank to finance his “grandest ambitions,” Bloomberg reported last year. The Russian leader spent considerable time and effort revamping Vnesheconombank in 2007 to turn it into “a pillar of his Kremlin-driven economy at the height of the oil boom,” and took “personal control” over the bank’s key lending decisions.
“When oil prices were high, VEB lent huge sums to politically expedient but financially questionable initiatives such as infrastructure projects for the 2014 Winter Sochi Olympics,” Reuters reported last year.
The meeting between Kushner and Gorkov did not appear to break any rules, and Hicks, the White House spokesperson, said it was “not much of a conversation” so didn’t warrant a disclosure to the rest of the Trump transition team.
Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia, noted that the meeting was a “very odd choice of interlocutors…Vneshekonombank (VEB) is not just any old sanctioned Russian entity.”
“VEB (formerly chaired by Putin himself) is Russian government’s primary vehicle for special funding of key projects,” Weiss added.
Kushner is the closest person to Trump to be swept up in either the Senate or the House Intelligence Committees’ investigation so far.
The FBI is investigating the Russian interference separately from Congress, FBI Director James Comey confirmed last week. The investigation has been examining whether members of Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russian officials to undermine Hillary Clinton.
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