White House’s explanation for Kushner’s secret meeting with a Russian banker unravels

The White House says it was about diplomacy. The bank says it was all business.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a breakfast with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 23: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a breakfast with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 23: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

On Monday, the New York Times broke news about a previously undisclosed December meeting between Jared Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, head of Vnesheconombank, a state-owned Russian bank that is still under American sanctions placed on it by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The meeting occurred as Kushner, who was still head of Kushner Companies at the time, was looking for investors to redevelop the Manhattan office building he paid $1.8 billion to purchase in 2007. But White House spokesperson Hope Hicks told the Times that Kushner, who now serves as President Trump’s senior adviser, met with Gorkov to talk diplomacy — not to try and strike a business deal.

“Members of presidential transition teams routinely meet with foreign officials,” the Times reported, paraphrasing an interview with Hicks. “Part of Mr. Kushner’s role during the campaign and the transition was to serve as a chief conduit to foreign governments and officials, and Ms. Hicks said he met with dozens of officials from a wide range of countries.”

That line was echoed by Press Secretary Sean Spicer during his Monday news conference.

“Throughout the campaign and the transition, Jared served as the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials,” Spicer said. “You’re acting as though there’s something nefarious about doing what he was actually tasked to do.”

But Vnesheconombank tells a different story. In a statement emailed to Reuters and other outlets, the espionage-linked bank says that Gorkov, who was appointed to his position as chair of the bank by Russian President Vladimir Putin, met “with a number of representatives of the largest banks and business establishments of the United States, including Jared Kushner, the head of Kushner Companies.”

Shortly after his meeting with Kushner, Gorkov —who graduated from Russia’s Federal Security Service security agency, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB — went on a Russian state-owned television station and said he was hopeful the financial constraints placed on Russian banks like his by the American sanctions “would change for the better,” the Times reports.

According to the Times, the meeting between Kushner and Gorkov was arranged by Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had previously met in Trump Tower with Kushner and Michael Flynn.

“Mr. Kushner attended the initial meeting with Mr. Kislyak to explore whether a channel could be set up between the Russian government and the incoming administration to improve relations between the United States and Russia, Ms. Hicks said,” the Times reports. “They also discussed how the United States and Russia could cooperate on issues in the Middle East, an area Mr. Kushner has been deputized to take the lead on, she said.”

After that meeting, Kislyak arranged the meeting between Kushner and Gorkov.

The Senate Intelligence Committee isn’t sold on the White House’s story, however, and plans to interview Kushner about “if he discussed ways to secure additional financing for [the Manhattan] building during his meeting with the Russian banker, a government official said,” according to the Times.

In anticipation of working in the White House, Kushner sold his ownership stakes in Kushner companies, but government ethics experts “argue that the Kushner family and business are so close-knit that the steps Jared Kushner has taken do not go far enough” to mitigate conflicts of interest, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.

A lawyer told the New York Times that Kushner is involved in a “shell game” since he can reacquire his assets as soon as his government work ends. And in the meantime, he’ll still have an interest in deals that benefit his family.

In the aforementioned report, Bloomberg broke news that Kushner’s family business struck a $4 billion deal with Anbang, a Chinese company with murky links to the country’s power structure, that will result in the Kushner family receiving more than $400 million. The deal “includes terms that some real estate experts consider unusually favorable for the Kushners.”

News of the deal prompted five Democratic lawmakers to write the White House deputy counsel a letter asking about potential conflicts of interest due to Anbang’s “close ties to the Chinese state.” On Saturday, Anbang suddenly denied that a deal was done, saying “there is no investment” in a statement sent to Bloomberg.

About a week before the inauguration, Trump acknowledged he was open to lifting sanctions on Russia, telling the Wall Street Journal that “if you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” That interview occurred the same week that Mike Pence categorically denied there had been communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials before the election.

About a month later, news broke that Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador and misled Pence about it. That revelation led to his ouster as national security adviser. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into the Trump campaign and Russian after it was revealed that he too had been misleading about his pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak.