Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner denies colluding with Russia
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Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, told Senate investigators on Monday he had met with Russian officials four times last year but said he did not collude with Moscow to influence the 2016 election.
A businessman like Trump, Kushner portrayed himself as new to politics when he became a top adviser to Trump's campaign. Frantic fielding of phone calls and emails made his recollections of some meetings somewhat hazy, he wrote.
Kushner, who met behind closed doors with Senate Intelligence Committee staff, made the remarks in a written statement he issued before the meeting giving the fullest account to date of his contacts with Russian officials.
"I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government," he wrote. "I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector."
U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, engaged in a campaign of hacking and propaganda to tilt the election in Trump's favor. Russia denies the allegations and Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Moscow.
After meeting the committee for about two hours on Capitol Hill, Kushner, the husband of Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump, returned to the White House. He made a statement to reporters outside but did not take questions.
"The record and documents I have voluntarily provided will show that all of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign," Kushner said.
Trump, who has called the Russia probes politically motivated, lashed out at the investigations in Twitter messages on Monday.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is one of several congressional panels investigating the Russia matter, along with a criminal probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI. Kushner arrived on Capitol Hill with prominent white-collar defense lawyer Abbe Lowell.
Meeting with Russian Ambassador
Kushner said he first met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Washington in April 2016 and shook hands. He said he did not recall phone calls with Kislyak between April and November 2016, as reported by Reuters in May, had found no evidence of the calls in phone records and was skeptical they took place.
Reuters reported that there were at least 18 phone calls, text massages and emails between Trump campaign associates and Kremlin-linked individuals between April and November 2016, according to current and former officials. Among those 18 contacts were six calls between Trump associates and Kislyak.
Two of the sources identified Kushner as involved in at least two of those calls with Kislyak. The six calls with Kislyak also included former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, those sources said.
Kushner was expected to face questions about reports he tried to set up a secret back channel to Moscow.
He said that in a Dec. 1 meeting with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador asked if there was a secure line in Trump's transition office to facilitate a discussion with Russian generals about Syria, and Kushner replied there was not.
Kushner said he asked if there was an existing communications channel at the Russian Embassy that could be used, but Kislyak said that was not possible and they agreed to follow up after the inauguration.
"Nothing else occurred. I did not suggest a 'secret back channel,'" Kushner said.
Kushner said he met on Dec. 13, with Sergei Gorkov, the head of Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank, because of Kislyak's insistence and because the Russian had a "direct relationship" with Putin.
"He introduced himself and gave me two gifts - one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village," Kushner said.
He said neither sanctions imposed by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration nor Kushner's business activities were discussed. Vneshekonombank has been subjected to U.S. economic sanctions since mid-2014 over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated under Obama and Trump has said he wants to improve ties with Moscow, at times expressing admiration for Putin.
'Need exuse' to leave meeting
Lawmakers have said they want to hear about a June 2016 meeting involving Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
The younger Trump has released emails that showed he welcomed the prospect of receiving damaging information from the Russian government about Clinton.
Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort were also at the meeting but Kushner described it as a waste of time and said there was no discussion about the campaign during the time he was there.
"I actually emailed an assistant from the meeting after I had been there for ten or so minutes and wrote 'Can u pls call me on my cell? Need excuse to get out of meeting.'"
Kushner did not initially disclose any meetings with Russians on forms he filed to get a government security clearance. He has since revised those forms several times.
He said the forms were initially submitted prematurely in error and omitted all foreign contacts he had had, not just those with Russian officials.
Kushner is also scheduled to address the House intelligence panel on Tuesday.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University law school, said Kushner's statement makes the best of a bad situation.
"At best, these meetings make Kushner and others look like chumps," Turley said. "They may be forced to argue they were ham-handed chumps."