Federal investigators are fixated on a mysterious December meeting between senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Russian banker Sergey Gorkov. Was Kushner really trying to open a direct channel of communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin? And why would he meet with the head of a state-controlled Russian bank to discuss such a thing?
The content of that 30-minute meeting is the latest focus of a federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which was first reported Friday by the Washington Post.
Whatever the motive of the encounter, it was a shocking and risky move for Kushner to meet with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank at all. Gorkov is the CEO of Vnesheconombank, or VEB, one of several state-run Russian banks under US sanctions since mid-2014.
As a US citizen, Kushner could face up to 20 years in prison if he even talked about lending money to the bank, or if he discussed helping the bank get financing. That would have violated the economic sanctions put in place by the Obama administration as punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Under the sanctions, it’s illegal for Americans and US financial institutions to lend money to or buy stocks from these banks. Americans are not even allowed to talk about doing so, which could be considered criminal conspiracy.
The fact that Gorkov released a statement in March saying Kushner met with him in his role as a businessman and CEO of Kushner Companies, and not as an administration transition official, makes it look worse for Kushner. And so does the fact that Kushner never reported the meeting to investigators during his security clearance check. The White House later portrayed the meeting as a routine, inconsequential diplomatic encounter after the New York Times first reported in March that it had occurred.
Regardless of what the two men discussed, Kushner should have avoided meeting privately with Gorkov at all costs, says William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“It’s the perception of the meeting that is so damaging,” says Pomeranz. “You do not want to give the impression that you are trying to get around sanctions, even if the conversation was innocuous.”
Sanctions law casts a shadow on the meeting
It’s certainly possible that Kushner and Gorkov avoided talking about money and financing for the bank. But it’s not such a remote possibility that they did either. Right now, raising capital is major concern for Russia’s sanctioned financial institutions.
The country’s largest state-run banks, including VEB, have been struggling to raise money on the global market after the United States and the European Union cut them off from financing. American citizens, US residents, and all financial institutions located in the United States are not allowed to issue loans to these banks for longer than 30 days. They are also prohibited from buying stocks or shares in the financial institutions.
The sanctions don’t prohibit Americans from all business transactions with the banks. For example, I could open a bank account in Moscow with Sberbank (Russia’s largest bank), without violating sanctions. I could even get a loan from the bank. But it doesn’t work the other way. The United States doesn’t want American dollars invested in banks that mostly belong to the Russian government. The Russian Federation owns a majority share in the five sanctioned banks, and the government relies on them to fund government projects and weapons manufacturing.
The intention of the sanctions was to put financial pressure on the Russian government to retreat from Crimea. So far, it has not. But that doesn’t mean the banks aren’t hurting. Sberbank and VTB, Russia’s two largest banks, spent hundreds of thousand of dollars last year lobbying Congress and the Obama administration to address “sanctions relief,” according to lobbying disclosures. President Trump, during the first weeks of his administration, had also discussed lifting the Obama-era sanctions on Russia, which he has not yet done.
Trump’s connection to Russian banks
Kushner’s meeting with the Russian banker is particularly alarming as investigators uncover more and more evidence linking the Trump administration to Russia, which was accused of meddling in the US election.
But even before Trump was president, and before the Ukraine-related sanctions were in place, it wasn’t unusual for Trump to associate with Russian bankers. While he was partial owner of the Miss Universe Organization, the 2013 pageant was hosted in Moscow, where Trump reportedly met with the CEO of Sberbank. The state-run bank —Russia’s largest one — was also one of the pageant’s sponsors. At the time, Trump bragged about how much the Russian oligarchs loved him.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that $15 million from VEB, the development bank, was used to fund the construction of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto in 2007. A Russian-Canadian developer, Alexander Shnaider, who built the 65-story hotel, put that money into the project after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from a separate asset sale that involved the Russian bank.
At the time, there were no restrictions on business deals between Americans and Russian banks. But even if Trump’s financial transactions with Russia were not illegal, it’s important to understand how deep his ties are to the region, says Pomeranz.
“It would be good to know how much financing Trump has received from the former Soviet Union,” he said. “That would be important, at least for transparency’s sake, to understand his motivations for dealing with the region.”
So far, Trump has shown no inclination to do such a thing, though he has tried to distance himself from the Russian billionaires and financiers he’s long admired. Last month, his lawyers released a letter saying that they had analyzed Trump’s tax returns for the past 10 years and concluded that he had very little income from Russian sources.
The letter says that neither Trump nor his businesses owe money to Russian lenders, and that there have been no Russian investments in his business. They included two exceptions: income from the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and the sale of a Florida condo to a Russian billionaire.
This assertions in the letter, of course, cannot be verified, as Trump still refuses to release his tax returns to the public.