White House

Here’s why the feds are looking at Jared Kushner

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, looks on during a meeting between President Donald Trump and Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, looks on during a meeting between President Donald Trump and Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, May 21, 2017. AP

Federal investigators homing in on Jared Kushner’s connections to powerful Russians and his multiple roles in last year’s presidential campaign have identified at least three lines of inquiry into Donald Trump’s son-in-law.

From a meeting with a former Russian intelligence official-turned-banker allied with Vladimir Putin and Kushner’s failure to report it, to his push to have the president fire James Comey at the FBI, investigators see the 36-year-old’s fingerprints on several questionable actions.

Indeed, Kushner’s presence “is popping up in multiple places,” said a source familiar with the inquiry.

Investigators are now trying to sort out a series of questions about Kushner’s role, among them why he failed to disclose meetings with Russians on an application for a security clearance and his work with ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose Russia dealings are at the center of multiple probes involving the Trump team’s ties to Moscow.

Kushner is the only active White House official known to be a focus of the broad investigation into whether Trump’s campaign collaborated in Russia’s unprecedented cyber and espionage offensive aimed at harming Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and aiding Trump’s. NBC News and the Washington Post were the first to report that Kushner is drawing scrutiny, a development that two people familiar with the matter confirmed to McClatchy.

During the campaign, Kushner helped oversee digital operations that unleashed social media barrages targeted at the local level in an attempt to shift the opinions of voters in key states, former Trump aides say. Russia similarly directed anti-Clinton or pro-Trump social media blitzes.

After the election, he aroused suspicions when he met in New York with Sergei Gorkov, a former Russian intelligence official who is the powerful president of a Russian state-backed bank closely tied to Vladimir Putin – a meeting that one of the sources said “set people’s hair on fire.” The bank has been under U.S. sanctions since Russian-backed separatists invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.

This month, Kushner was a force behind Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, who had refused Trump’s entreaties to pledge loyalty to the president as he led the investigation and publicly confirmed that Trump associates were under scrutiny. It remains to be seen whether Kushner’s role could draw him into a debate about whether the firing and Trump’s related actions amounted to obstruction of justice.

The investigation is now being overseen by former FBI director Robert Mueller, who was named special counsel by the Justice Department last week just days after Trump sacked Comey and set off a political and public furor.

Kushner is not considered a target or central player in the investigation, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiry is confidential.

Rather, the inquiry still revolves mainly around the Russia contacts of two individuals: Flynn, a retired three-star Army general who resigned as Trump’s national security adviser in February after it was revealed he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about pre-inaugural phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador, and Paul Manafort, a political consultant who advised a pro-Russian former president of Ukraine before briefly leading Trump’s campaign last summer.

Kushner’s role drew increased interest after The New York Times reported last month that he failed to disclose on his application for a high-level national security clearance his post-election meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and with Gorkov.

Word of the FBI focus on Kushner prompted the Democratic National Committee to call Friday for suspension of his security clearance.

“The FBI’s Russia investigation reached Trump’s backyard, and now it’s in his house,” the party committee said. “Kushner’s security clearance should be suspended until the FBI’s findings are complete.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, stuck by an earlier statement, saying: “Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings (with Russians). He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”

Kushner and Flynn met with Ambassador Kislyak at Trump Tower in December.

“Jared and Flynn worked together on matters during the transition, including meetings with foreign leaders,” a source familiar with Trump’s presidential transition team said.

But it’s Kushner’s December meeting with Gorkov, president of the Vnesheconombank, or VEB – a connection suggested by Kisylak, that has triggered the most controversy.

“Why is he meeting with someone (Gorkov) who engages in covert activities for Russian intelligence officers?” asked one of the sources familiar with the investigation. “It’s deeply, deeply suspicious.”

The source noted that VEB had tried to recruit a former Trump foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, a few years earlier. Page is now one of four four ex Trump campaign aides and associates who the FBI has been looking at for months to determine if they colluded with Russian operatives during the campaign.

VEB and the White House have given conflicting descriptions of the Kushner meeting. The White House has said the meeting was a routine diplomatic encounter, furthering Kushner’s role as the Trump campaign’s conduit for contacts with foreign governments. Gorkov first said that the meeting dealt with matters relating to Kushner Cos., the Kushner family’s huge real estate business.

However, ABC News reported Friday that the bank described the discussion as a “negotiation” in which “the parties discussed the business practices applied by foreign development banks, as well as most promising business lines and sectors.”

Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who helped write sanctions on Russian institutions, voiced skepticism about Kushner’s interface with VEB.

“The narrow level of acceptable conversation topics presents at a minimum ethical and possibly legal issues,” he said in a phone interview. “The meeting raises real questions about what was said by Kushner and Gorkov and in what context.”

Anders Aslund, a Russia expert with the nonpartisan Atlantic Council, said VEB is “completely controlled by Putin.”

He called the meeting “impermissible.”

“There are only two things that could have been discussed: sanctions and private business with Kushner Cos.,” Aslund said. “This could be a straightforward bribery attempt and the meeting should never have taken place.”

Similarly, Louise Shelley, an expert on money laundering and corruption who teaches at George Mason University, said she is troubled by the meeting.

“It’s odd to have a meeting with someone whose bank is under sanctions.”

Gorkov, she said, is a former Russian intelligence officer, and in Russia, “you never leave the security services.”

Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent.