Shortly before last year's presidential election, Donald Trump Jr. flew to France for lunch at the Hotel Ritz Paris with a Syrian peace activist, who says she meets regularly with Russian officials, and her French husband, who nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for a Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Donald Trump's eldest son dined with his hosts, Randa Kassis and Fabien Baussart, at a corner table in the opulent Louis XV Salon. That night, Trump Jr. addressed a seminar organized by Baussart, who heads an obscure foreign policy think tank, for a fee of at least $50,000.
"Fabien invited him, and I talked to him" about "a collaboration between the U.S. and Russia on Syria," Kassis recalled in a telephone interview. "No Russian was in this dinner."
But Kassis said she flew to Moscow days after the Oct. 11, 2016, event and briefed Foreign Ministry officials in Putin's government. And after Trump won the election, she boasted in broken English about sending a message to the new president through his son.
"I succeeded to pass Trump, through the talks with his son, the idea of how we can cooperate together to reach the agreement between Russia and the United States on Syria," she wrote in a Facebook post that was later removed.
The elegant lunch and its surprising aftermath, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, fit into a growing pattern of suspicious approaches to Trump's family members or campaign aides last year by Russian officials or by Kremlin intermediaries in meetings, emails and other contacts that now are the focus of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's criminal investigation.
In recent weeks, George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about several meetings with Russian officials, including a member of its Foreign Ministry and a woman he believed to be Putin's niece. Another former campaign aide, Carter Page, told a House committee that he flew to Moscow to give a speech and spoke privately with a Russian deputy prime minister while there.
Mueller is known to be scrutinizing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that involved Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They met with a woman described as a Russian government lawyer and three of her associates, who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee.
Mueller last month indicted Manafort and another former campaign aide on fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges unrelated to the campaign. Kushner, a senior aide to the president, remains in the crosshairs, partly because he met Russia's ambassador to Washington after the election and asked about creating a private communication channel to Moscow, apparently to avoid U.S. surveillance.
Manafort and his aide have pleaded not guilty, and all the others, including Trump Jr., have denied wrongdoing. President Trump has denounced the Mueller investigation and congressional investigations as a "witch hunt" and a "hoax."
People close to Trump Jr. say his visit to Paris was innocuous, one of many appearances he made last year to collect hefty fees from groups eager for insights into his father. They dismiss as irrelevant the fact that his host specifically claimed she used him as a back channel to the new U.S. president while she was briefing Moscow.
Alan Futerfas, Trump Jr.'s lawyer, said the president's son got the speaking gig through his booking agent and did not know in advance his hosts planned to pitch him on bringing Washington and Moscow together to end the Syrian civil war — an unlikely proposal because the two governments have backed separate and often opposing sides in the war.
"Donald listened with concern and empathy, but he was in no position to comment or suggest anything beyond listening to her concerns or hopes for her country," Futerfas said this week.
Nor did Trump Jr. know that Kassis planned to brief the Russian government about their conversation, Futerfas said. He did not pass along her ideas to his father or anyone else at the campaign, Futerfas said.
Kassis seemed unsure whether her appeal made an impression on Trump Jr. "It wasn't so clear, but I talked about the risk of radical Islam. I didn't know if he agreed 100%," she told The Times.
Renaud Girard, a French journalist who moderated the evening seminar in which Trump Jr. spoke, told ABC News that attendees included ambassadors to France, lawyers, bankers and business executives.
"The one thing that amazed me was that [Trump Jr.] was confident that his father would win," Girard said.
Baussart and Kassis describe themselves as freelance diplomats, backing causes and foreign leaders of their own choosing.
Baussart, a lawyer by training, has worked with Russian oligarchs and with senior officials from former Soviet republics, according to a former associate who has known him since the 1990s and asked not to be identified.
His Paris-based think tank, the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, has no address or phone number on its website or in the phone listings. Under French law, it is not required to disclose who funds it.
Reached by email, Baussart referred questions to his wife. "My English is not so good," he wrote.
Kassis, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Paris called the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, describes herself as "a Syrian secular opposition figure."
She said there was nothing secret about Trump Jr.'s visit — or her relations with the Russian government.
"I go to Moscow, and always I meet with the Foreign Ministry," she said. The Center of Political and Foreign Affairs is Baussart's "personal think tank" and is not connected with Moscow, she added.
The center's website shows photos of the couple with current and former Russian, European, U.S. and Middle Eastern diplomats, officials, academics and businessmen. Kassis also uses Facebook, posting a May 2016 photo of herself with Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs.
In February, the couple met with Alexander Lavrentyev, a Putin-appointed Syria peace negotiator, and another Russian diplomat, another photo shows. The caption says they discussed "preparations for the Geneva talks," presumably the United Nations-backed peace negotiations between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition that began Feb. 23 and ended eight days later without success.
For his part, Trump Jr. already had helped pass information between Russian intermediaries and the Trump campaign during the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016.
The sit-down had been arranged by Rob Goldstone, who had done business with Trump Jr. In emails, he told Trump Jr. that Natalia Veselnitskaya was a "Russian government attorney" who had "official documents and information" that would "incriminate" Clinton "and would be very useful to your father."
The meeting took place — but the information proved worthless, Trump Jr. has said.
A month later, thousands of emails stolen from a computer network at the Democratic National Committee began appearing on WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence officials quickly determined that hackers linked to Russian intelligence were behind the theft — part of a much broader attempt to meddle in the U.S. election and swing voters to Trump.
In September 2016, Trump Jr. exchanged private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks, which asked him to publicize the stolen emails and notify his father about them. Trump Jr. made the messages public this week after the Atlantic magazine first disclosed them.
The Paris event was not the last contact Trump Jr. had from Kassis and Baussart, Futerfas said. Some time later, Trump Jr. received an email from Baussart inviting him back, said Futerfas, who was unsure of the date.
Trump Jr. didn't reply, he said.
Special correspondent Kim Willsher contributed to this report from Paris.