While the White House has sought to distance itself from campaign staff with ties to Russia this past week by suggesting those under scrutiny were fringe players — including Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort — the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon connections tightened this morning with the New York Times reporting that the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to question Trump son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner as part of their broad inquiry into ties between Trump associates and Russian officials or others linked to the Kremlin. Senate Committee to Question Jared Kushner Over Meetings With Russians:
The White House Counsel’s Office was informed this month that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, wanted to question Mr. Kushner about meetings he arranged with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, according to the government officials. The meetings included a previously unreported sit-down with the head of Russia’s state-owned development bank.
Until now, the White House had acknowledged only an early December meeting between Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Kushner, which occurred at Trump Tower and was also attended by Michael T. Flynn, who would briefly serve as the national security adviser.
Later that month, though, Mr. Kislyak requested a second meeting, which Mr. Kushner asked a deputy to attend in his stead, officials said. At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner later met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Vnesheconombank, which drew sanctions from the Obama administration after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia annexed Crimea and began meddling in Ukraine.
A White House spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, confirmed those meetings, saying in an interview that nothing of consequence was discussed and that they went nowhere. Mr. Gorkov, who previously served as deputy chairman of the board at Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned bank, could not be reached for comment.
Members of presidential transition teams routinely meet with foreign officials, and there is nothing inherently improper about sitting down with the Russian ambassador. 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.
She added that Mr. Kushner was willing to talk to Senate investigators about the meetings with Mr. Kislyak and the banker, saying, “He isn’t trying to hide anything and wants to be transparent.”
Still, meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials or others linked to Mr. Putin are now of heightened interest as several congressional committees and F.B.I. investigators try to determine the scope of the Russian intervention in the election and links between Russians and anyone around Mr. Trump.
The Senate panel’s decision to question Mr. Kushner would make him the closest person to the president to be called upon in any of the investigations, and the only one currently serving in the White House. The officials who initially described that Senate inquiry to The New York Times did so on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about Mr. Trump’s son-in-law.
The F.B.I. declined to comment. There are no indications that Mr. Kushner is a focus of its investigation, and Ms. Hicks said he had not been questioned by the bureau.
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The meetings Mr. Kushner arranged with Mr. Kislyak all took place in December, during the transition, Ms. Hicks said. 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. 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.
Mr. Kislyak asked for a second meeting to “deliver a message,” Ms. Hicks said. Mr. Kushner sent Avrahm Berkowitz, a White House aide and longtime associate. At that session, Mr. Kislyak told Mr. Berkowitz that he wanted Mr. Kushner to meet Mr. Gorkov, the Russian banker, Ms. Hicks said.
As the head of Vnesheconombank, Mr. Gorkov presides over a bank whose supervisory board is controlled by members of Mr. Putin’s government, including Prime Minister Dimitri A. Medvedev. It has been used to bail out oligarchs favored by Mr. Putin, as well as to help fund pet projects like the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Around the time the Russian ambassador asked that Mr. Kushner meet with Mr. Gorkov, American intelligence agencies were concluding that Russian spies, acting on the orders of Mr. Putin, had sought to sway the election by hacking political targets, like the Democratic National Committee, and passing stolen emails to WikiLeaks.
Mr. Kushner had not yet stepped aside as chief executive of Kushner Companies, his family’s real estate empire, and was trying to attract investment for the company’s crown jewel, an overleveraged Manhattan office tower on Fifth Avenue. He was in the midst of negotiations to redevelop the building with Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese company with ties to the Beijing government.
Senate investigators plan to ask Mr. Kushner if he discussed ways to secure additional financing for the building during his meeting with the Russian banker, a government official said. Ms. Hicks said that no such business was discussed at the half-hour session, during which Mr. Gorkov expressed a desire for an open dialogue. Nor did the issue of the American sanctions against Russian entities like Vnesheconombank arise, she added. “It really wasn’t much of a conversation,” she said.
The inquiry into Mr. Kushner’s dealings with the ambassador may further complicate Mr. Trump’s efforts to move past the Russia situation. Last week, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, confirmed in testimony to Congress that his agency had begun a counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference and whether any associates of the president might have colluded with the Russian government.
The Senate investigation is proceeding on a separate track from the F.B.I. investigation while drawing on some of the same material, like routine electronic surveillance of the Russian ambassador and his embassy cohort. The committee chairman, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, has told the White House he plans to interview all Trump aides who had contact with Russian officials, according to White House officials. Depending on those interviews, some may be called upon to testify in closed-door sessions.
Mr. Burr and Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the committee’s vice chairman, said in a statement: “Mr. Kushner has volunteered to be interviewed as part of the committee’s investigation into the Russian activities surrounding the 2016 election.” They added that their inquiry would “follow the intelligence wherever it leads.”
The extent of Mr. Kushner’s interactions with Mr. Kislyak caught some senior members of Mr. Trump’s White House team off guard, in part because he did not mention them last month during a debate then consuming the White House: how to handle the disclosures about Mr. Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador.
Ms. Hicks said that Mr. Trump had authorized Mr. Kushner to have meetings with foreign officials that he felt made sense, and to report back to him if those meetings produced anything of note. She said that because in Mr. Kushner’s view the meetings were inconsequential, it did not occur to him to mention them to senior staff members earlier.
Speaking of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s connections to the Russians, there is this “take it for what it’s worth” story over the weekend.
On Friday’s edition of Don Lemon CNN Tonight, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem discussed the possibility in a panel discussion that former national security adviser Mike Flynn has cut a deal with the FBI and is now informing on his old boss. CNN analyst: Sources say Mike Flynn may have turned on Trump and become a witness for the FBI:
CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem discussed the possibility in a panel discussion on Friday night when she said that former Trump foreign policy consultant Carter Page, ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort and longtime Trump ally Roger Stone will all testify before the House Intelligence Committee regarding their ties to Russia.
“It’s not that interesting to me because I don’t think they’ll be under oath,” Kayyem said. “The one name not mentioned is a name I mention often on this show: Mike Flynn, the former national security adviser.”
“It is starting to look like — from my sources and from open reporting — that Mike Flynn is the one who may have a deal with the FBI and that’s why we have not heard from him for some time,” she said.
Kayyem does hedge her comments by later saying “if its true,” which means that her sources have not been confirmed by the FBI. Still, her comments have stirred some chatter in Washington.
UPDATE: House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes refused to reveal his source to his fellow committee members last week, but denied that his source was the White House (or that he had coordinated his dog and pony show with the White House). It turns out this may not be true. You’re shocked, I’m sure.
Steve Benen reports, Before his strange announcement, Intel chair went to the White House:
It’s entirely possible that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is deliberately trying to derail the investigation he’s ostensibly leading. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza posited last week that the California Republican found himself stuck pursuing a Russia scandal in a way that would do real damage to Donald Trump, so Nunes “essentially blew up” the investigation.
And if that is the GOP lawmaker’s goal – to compromise himself and the investigation his committee is conducting – it’s almost certainly working. Today the story took a truly bizarre twist.
The day before he announced to reporters that Donald Trump may have been incidentally monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies during the transition, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes met with the source of that information at the White House, a Nunes spokesman told NBC News.
“Chairman Nunes met with his source at the White House grounds in order to have proximity to a secure location where he could view the information provided by the source,” said his spokesman, Jack Langer…. Nunes has declined to say who provided the intelligence reports he referenced, but his admission that he met with his source at the White House is fueling suspicions among Democrats that his source was someone close to Trump.
For those who haven’t been following this, let’s back up for a minute.
On Wednesday, Nunes held two fairly breathless press conferences to suggest he received secret information – from a source he would not identify – that there were incidental recordings of Trump transition officials, after the election but before the inauguration, conducted by intelligence agencies as part of legal surveillance. The congressman struggled to keep key details of his story straight, including whether Trump was personally recorded – a point he initially confirmed to reporters, before reversing course.
Nunes made matters worse by going to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to brief Team Trump – in the process undermining his own investigation, stepping all over separation of powers, trashing the process he’s supposed to be honoring, and acting as if he were somehow a presidential employee – without bothering to talk to his colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee.
Today’s revelations, however, deal with what happened the day before.
On Tuesday night, Nunes reportedly received a phone call that prompted him to leave an Uber ride with an aide. It now appears the congressman went to the White House to review classified material, which is odd because he had a variety of other choices – including secure locations on Capitol Hill, a mile and a half from the White House, where Intelligence Committee members examine sensitive information on a nearly daily basis.
So, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee received information from the Trump administration at the White House complex, which he then shared with the media the next day in the hopes of benefiting Trump at an impromptu press conference outside the White House, before he entered the White House to brief Trump administration officials.
[Update: Nunes, who insisted last week he couldn’t talk about his sources, told Bloomberg Politics today his contact was not a White House staffer but was an intelligence official. “Nunes told me that he expects that his committee’s members, including Democrats, will be able to read these documents themselves at secure locations outside of Congress as soon as this week.”]
Today, Nunes was supposed to host an open hearing on the investigation with several key figures, but the Republican chairman abruptly cancelled the hearing without explanation late last week.
Rep. Devin Nunes is jeopardizing the congressional investigation and may be engaged in obstruction of justice. He needs to be removed as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. There needs to be a bipartisan commission and/or a special prosecutor appointed to investigate because it is clear GOP leaders cannot be trusted to conduct an honest oversight investigation into the Trump campaign connections to Russia.