Jared Kushner details contacts with Russians, denies collusion
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 U.S. 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 said.
Kushner, who met behind closed doors with Senate Intelligence Committee staff, made the remarks in a written statement that he issued before the meeting and that gave 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 try to tilt the November election in Trump's favor.
Russia denies the allegations and Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Moscow.
Kushner, who is married to Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump, met committee staff for about two hours on Capitol Hill and then returned to the White House where 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 prevailed over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in November 2016 because he ran a "smarter campaign" and to suggest otherwise "ridicules those who voted for him,” he 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.
Kushner arrived on Capitol Hill with prominent white-collar defense lawyer Abbe Lowell.
Two sources with knowledge of what Kushner told the Senate staff said the session was pleasant and conversational and that there may be another interview.
Kushner did not initially disclose any meetings with Russians on forms he filed to get a government security clearance for his work in the White House.
He has since revised those forms several times.
According to the sources, Kushner told the investigators that his lawyers and staff had not handled his security clearance form properly but they informed the FBI immediately when they realized it had been sent before it was complete, and then submitted a complete version.
He said in his written statement that the initial form omitted not just Russian contacts but all foreign contacts.
Meeting With Russian Ambassador
Kushner said he first met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Washington in April 2016 and shook hands.
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 Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, those sources said.
Kushner said he did not recall phone calls with Kislyak between April and November 2016, had found no evidence of the calls in phone records and was skeptical they took place.
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 that 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 Excuse' 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 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 sought to make 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."