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.”