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Jared Kushner said to have weighed creating secret channel with Russia

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2017 Chris Strohm

Washington: Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, considered setting up a secret line of communications between the incoming administration and the Russian government, primarily to discuss a resolution to the crisis in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Kushner discussed the idea with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in December, as the Trump team was preparing its transition to the White House after its unexpected election victory a month earlier. The line was never established, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

The talks between Kushner and Kislyak at Trump Tower in New York weren’t acknowledged during the transition, and it’s not clear which side called for the meeting. A secret line with Russia could have allowed the Trump transition and Russian officials to communicate outside of the scrutiny of the departing Obama administration.

Kushner’s dealings with Russia have drawn the attention of FBI agents conducting an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the inquiry who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. There’s no indication Kushner, 36, has been designated a target of the probe.

“Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings. He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry,” Jamie Gorelick, Kushner’s lawyer, said in an emailed statement.

The FBI’s scrutiny of Kushner brings the sprawling probe into Russia’s role during and after last year’s campaign into the heart of the White House. Until now, officials known to be under scrutiny, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort, have been exiled from Trump’s orbit.

The Washington Post and New York Times reported on the discussions earlier Friday.

Reuters meanwhile, citing seven unnamed current and former US officials, reported on Friday that Kushner had at least three contacts with the Russian ambassador that he did not previously disclose, including some during the campaign.

“Mr Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period,” Gorelick said in an email. “He has no recollection of the calls as described. We have asked (Reuters) for the dates of such alleged calls so we may look into it and respond, but we have not received such information.”

The focus on Kushner will be one of the first issues confronting Trump when he returns from his first overseas trip as president this weekend. Kushner’s meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower last year was eventually disclosed by the White House in March.

Russian hacking

US intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia used hacking and leaking of emails in an effort to harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and ultimately help Trump win. James Comey — who was fired from his post as FBI director by Trump this month — told a congressional committee in March that the Federal Bureau of Investigation also was investigating “whether there was any coordination” with Trump’s campaign.

Trump has called the Russia inquiry a “witch hunt” and the talk of a collusion “a total hoax,” although he also has hedged his denials when it comes to those around him.

“I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt this month. “I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked for Kushner to discuss meetings he arranged with Kislyak, including one with Sergey Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, a state-owned Russian development bank. The Obama administration leveled sanctions on the bank after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine in 2014.

Documents sought

The committee also has asked Trump’s campaign to produce all documents, emails and telephone records going back to the beginning of his run for the White House in June 2015, the Washington Post also reported on Friday, citing two unnamed people who were briefed on the request.

Gorkov said in a statement issued by Vnesheconombank earlier this year that his meeting with Kushner was one of a series of meetings with foreign business leaders as part of a strategic review in 2016.

“They discussed existing practices of the development bank’s work, promising areas and industries,” he said in the statement, which was written in Russian. “The meetings took place in the form of a roadshow on VEB’s strategy by 2021 with the representatives of the largest banks and business circles of the US, including head of Kushner Companies Jared Kushner.”

Flynn, who was forced to resign after misleading administration officials about his conversations with Kislyak, this week asserted his Fifth Amendment rights in declining to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee for documents in its probe into Russian interference, according to senators.

Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has come under the spotlight for his past dealings with the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Special counsel

The New York Times reported this week that Russian intelligence and political advisers discussed last summer how to exert influence over Trump through his advisers, particularly Flynn and Manafort. The report cited three current and former US officials who weren’t identified.

The FBI’s Russia probe is being overseen by former bureau director Robert Mueller, who was appointed as a special counsel by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein after Trump fired Comey. Bloomberg

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