Putin marshaled his oligarchs to find back channels to Trump

Putin marshaled his oligarchs to find back channels to Trump
WASHINGTON—At 9:34 on the November morning after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and an informal envoy for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, sent a text message to a Lebanese-American friend with ties to the Trump campaign.

Dmitriev wanted to connect quickly with someone in Trump’s inner circle, preferably Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner. By the end of the month, he was in touch with Rick Gerson, a friend of Kushner who manages a New York hedge fund.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a meeting with French businessmen in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 18, 2019. According to the Mueller report, Putin wasted no time enlisting Russian oligarchs to carry the Kremlin’s message after Trump’s election.  (Alexander Nemenov / AP)

The two discussed a potential joint investment venture. But the special counsel’s report released Thursday suggested that Dmitriev’s real interest lay elsewhere: He had been instructed by Putin, he told Gerson, to come up with a plan for “reconciliation” between the United States and Russia.

Dmitriev and Gerson worked together on a two-page proposal for how the nations could co-operate on a variety of fronts. That document, the report said, later made its way to Kushner, incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. Nothing came of the idea that the Russian sovereign fund would invest with Gerson.

The outreach by Dmitriev, according to the special counsel’s report, was part of a broad, makeshift effort by the Kremlin to establish ties to Trump that began early in the campaign and shifted into high gear after Trump’s victory. Those efforts were channelled largely through people in the business world in both countries. Especially after the election, they led to a conflation of diplomatic and financial interests that was a stark departure from the carefully calibrated contacts typically managed by an incoming administration in the United States.

Trump’s on-the-fly campaign, lack of preparation for victory and disorganized transition created a vacuum that, as Russia sought out avenues of access and influence, was quickly filled by a number of people from outside established foreign policy circles, many of whom appeared eager to portray themselves as access brokers or to generate business opportunities.

The special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy by Trump or his campaign to influence the outcome of the election. But his report made clear how vigorously Putin sought to find points of contact and influence with Trump’s team — and how many people on the American side were willing to participate to one degree or another in discussions that touched on topics as varied as Trump’s desire to build a Moscow hotel to U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

It is not clear that the Russians had much, if any, success in influencing U.S. policy through the back channels they established, although Trump’s comments often strike foreign policy experts as remarkably sympathetic to Putin. But the would-be influence peddlers in the United States and in Russia generally proceeded without much regard for the growing recognition that Moscow had just interfered in multiple ways with the U.S. election and that any contacts outside established channels — especially those that mixed business and diplomacy — carried substantial political risks.

Angela Stent, a Georgetown University professor who recently wrote a book on Putin’s reign, said Trump’s willingness to tolerate informal interlocutors in the foreign policy field was “unlike any administration I have ever seen” but not unlike Putin’s own style.

The Trump White House, she said, is comfortable with “all these informal ways of doing business,” including giving a heightened role to family members and friends who are not required to disclose potential conflicts of interest or abide by government ethics rules. “That’s how the Russians like to operate,” she said.

According to the Mueller report, Putin wasted no time enlisting Russian oligarchs to carry the Kremlin’s message after Trump’s election. He convened an “all-hands” meeting of the country’s top oligarchs in December to discuss the risk of the United States imposing further sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the election.

One of those oligarchs, Petr Aven, who leads Alfa-Bank, Russia’s largest commercial bank, also met privately with Putin shortly after Trump’s election. He told the special counsel that the Russian president expected him to build inroads with the incoming administration, then repeatedly queried him on his progress in the coming months.

On the U.S. side, a varied cast of characters was fielding overtures and proposals from Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainians during the campaign and transition, including: Gerson; George Nader, the Lebanese-American with Trump campaign connections; Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman; Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime fixer and lawyer; and Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary.

Asked about his interactions with the executive at the Russian sovereign wealth fund, a spokesman for Gerson said in a statement that he engaged in no business with the fund and merely “presented personal ideas on humanitarian issues.”

Only rarely did anyone throw up a red flag, according to the report. In May 2016, after a campaign official reported that Alexander Torshin, an officer of a Russian state-owned bank, wanted to discuss an invitation from Putin to meet with Trump, Kushner, a top adviser to Trump, responded: “Pass on this. A lot of people come claiming to carry messages.” He added: “Be careful.”

But Kushner did not always heed his own advice. In mid-December 2016, he agreed to a one-on-one meeting with a Russian official he had been told had a direct line to Putin: Sergey Gorkov, head of the state-owned bank Vnesheconombank, which was under U.S. sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

A U.S. investment banker with many contacts in Russia, Robert Foresman, said Gorkov told him before the meeting that Putin had approved his trip and that he would report back to Putin afterward, the special counsel’s report states.

Kushner told prosecutors that he did not prepare for the encounter. No one on the transition team even bothered to search Google for Gorkov’s name. Prosecutors were unable to resolve what was discussed. Gorkov publicly suggested it was business, while Kushner said it was diplomatic issues.

At the time, Kushner’s family business was hunting for investors so it could hold onto its flagship property, a Manhattan office building. As the special counsel’s report noted in recounting the meeting between Kushner and Gorkov, there “had been public reporting both about efforts to secure lending on the property and possible conflicts of interest for Kushner arising out of his company’s borrowing from foreign lenders.”

The template of Russia trying to advance its policy goals through the business interests of people in Trump’s orbit was set in mid-2015, almost as soon as Trump announced his candidacy. One of the earliest examples was the Russian response to Cohen’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow, a hotel construction project that Trump had chased for decades.

Cohen and another Trump associate, Felix Sater, were communicating with various Russians or their intermediaries about issues such as site plans, the need for a Russian developer and financing. But the answers often concerned whether Trump was willing to meet with Putin. The possibility that Trump would travel to Russia for that purpose lingered until he clinched the Republican nomination in mid-2016.

Trump’s revolving cast of aides and advisers included several who had contacts with Russians or were being aggressively wooed by them, like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

One of the better-connected was Manafort, who spent five months as a top strategist and chairman for the Trump campaign. He had worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin; had spent the past decade carrying out the political agenda of Ukrainian oligarchs aligned with Moscow; and was in regular contact with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian associate whom prosecutors have linked to Russian intelligence.

For months during the campaign, Manafort was feeding internal polling data to Kilimnik, expecting it to be transferred to Deripaska and the Ukrainian oligarchs, the report states. In 2016 and early 2017, Manafort and Kilimnik also repeatedly discussed a proposal that would effectively have put part of eastern Ukraine under Russia’s control.

Despite many months of outreach before the election, the initial interactions between Trump’s team and the Kremlin were almost comical. Hope Hicks, Trump’s campaign secretary, received a 3 a.m. phone call on election night from a foreigner she could not understand, followed by an email the next morning conveying Putin’s congratulations. She forwarded it to Kushner, writing: “Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!”

But Putin quickly dispatched his big players, like Dmitriev, CEO of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

On Nov. 9, 2016, Dmitriev contacted Nader, an adviser to the royal court of United Arab Emirates whom he knew through joint Russian and Emirati investment projects and who professed to have Trump campaign contacts.

Dmitriev suggested he could meet Kushner at a coming World Chess Federation tournament in New York. He later said Putin himself would be extremely grateful if Nader could introduce Dmitriev to either Kushner or Donald Trump Jr.

Instead, Nader connected the Russian official to Gerson, Kushner’s hedge-fund friend, and to Prince, DeVos’ brother, who had no formal role in the transition.

On Jan. 11, 2017, Dmitriev and Prince met at Nader’s villa at the Four Seasons Resort in the Seychelles. Prince told the Russian official that he provided “policy papers” to Bannon, a top Trump adviser, and that he would brief Bannon on their meeting. But Prince’s style seemed strikingly ad hoc.

Returning to his room after professing his hopes for a new era of co-operation, Prince learned that a Russian aircraft carrier had sailed to Libya. At a hastily organized second meeting, he told Dmitriev that Russian involvement in Libya was “off the table.” He told prosecutors that he conveyed that message “based on his experience as a former naval officer,” the report said.

Dmitriev found the trip disappointing, the report said. He told Nader he wanted to talk to someone with more authority in the Trump administration about a strategic road map for Russia and the United States.

Prosecutors tried in vain to verify what Prince and Bannon told them they had discussed about the offshore encounter with Dmitriev. But although carrier records showed that they had texted each other dozens of times before March 2017, the report stated, their phones contained no messages.
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