- Mary Altaffer/AP
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, met with the CEO of Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank in December 2016, The New York Times reported on Monday.
The meeting – which had not previously been disclosed and came on the heels of Kushner’s meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, at Trump Tower – recently caught the eye of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any members of Trump’s campaign were complicit.
Kislyak reportedly orchestrated the meeting between Kushner and Vnesheconombank CEO Sergey N. Gorkov, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2016 as part of a restructuring of the bank’s management team, Bloomberg reported last year.
Gorkov’s former boss at Sberbank was Herman Gref, who recommended Gorkov for the Vnesheconombank position in a meeting with Putin in early 2016. “Gref preferred just to send one of his ‘troops’ to VEB for a rescue operation,” a Russian official told Reuters at the time.
Gref organized a meeting between Trump and 10 of Russia’s top businessmen while Trump was in Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.
Putin first revamped Vnesheconombank, known as Russia’s bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs, in 2007. The Russian leader turned it into “a pillar of his Kremlin-driven economy at the height of the oil boom” and took “personal control over key lending decisions,” according to Bloomberg, which characterized it as “the bank that financed Vladimir Putin’s grandest ambitions.”
- Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
“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.
Between 2012 and 2014, Vnesheconombank was used as cover for Russian spy Evgeny Buryakov as he attempted to recruit New York City residents as intelligence sources for Moscow, according to the Department of Justice. Before that, Buryakov used Vnesheconombank as a cover to spy and recruit assets in South Africa.
The bank had huge success between 2007 and 2014, but it all came crashing down when oil prices tanked and President Barack Obama levied sanctions on Kremlin officials and entities over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
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 $16 billion between 2016 and 2020, Reuters reported.
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.
White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks told The Times on Monday that the “Kushner Tower” project wasn’t discussed during his meeting with Gorkov, and a White House official said in a statement that Kushner took the meetings as part of his role as “the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials.”
“Given this role, he has volunteered to speak with Chairman Burr’s Committee but has not yet received confirmation,” the official said, referring to Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
The meeting did not appear to break any rules, and Hicks 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 Kushner’s meeting with Gorkov 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.
News of the meeting comes less than two months after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was asked to resign after “misleading” Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. It also comes as the FBI and Congress are trying to determine whether any favors were exchanged between Trump associates and Russia during the 2016 campaign.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has asked to interview Kushner about his meeting with Gorkov, has also requested the cooperation of Carter Page – an early foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign. In a dossier presented to Trump by top intelligence officials in January, Page was accused of traveling to Moscow in July 2016 to discuss a deal with the CEO of Russia’s state oil company to lift US sanctions on Russia.
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.