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Jared Kushner denies ‘collusion’ with Russia but confirms damaging details

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Jared Kushner told reporters he didn’t collude with Russia. (July 25, 2017)

President Trump‘s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner told a Senate committee Monday that he held four separate meetings with Russians during the presidential campaign last year, but he insisted he did not “collude” with Moscow in an effort to get Trump elected or to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia.

“I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so,” Kushner told reporters at the White House after a closed-door meeting with investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Kushner, nonetheless, confirmed several damaging details, including that he sought to set up a communications line at the Russian embassy in December to speak directly with Kremlin authorities outside normal U.S. channels. The Russian ambassador refused.

He insisted that his initial failure to report his meetings with the Russians or any other foreigners on forms required for a government security clearance was not deliberate. He blamed an aide who he said had mistakenly submitted the form, known as a SF-86, before it was complete, and that he later updated it.

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He also has repeatedly amended financial disclosure forms required for his White House post. Last week he filed paperwork indicating he had “inadvertently omitted” more than 70 assets worth at least $10.6 million. He and his wife, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, have reported assets worth at least $206 million.

On Monday, however, Kushner portrayed himself as an overworked and inexperienced campaign aide who was “forced to make changes on the fly” when it came to Russia.

His comments, and his release of an 11-page statement before he met with the Senate panel, mark a notable shift by the White House toward a more detailed disclosure in an effort to put to rest questions about the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia.

It comes as the House appears set to approve bipartisan legislation Tuesday intended to impose new sanctions on Moscow, partly for its meddling in the 2016 election, and to sharply curtail Trump’s ability to lift or ease related sanctions on Russia.

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The measure reflects deep skepticism in Congress over Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his efforts to improve U.S. relations with Moscow. The Senate is expected to pass the bill, and the White House has given mixed signals if Trump will sign it given the restrictions it places on his foreign policy.

Kushner’s appearance on Capitol Hill marks the first questioning of a senior White House official by one of the four congressional committees investigating Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential race.

He will reprise his testimony Tuesday before members of the House Intelligence Committee in a closed session and is expected to soon return to the Senate panel for questioning by its members, a congressional aide said.

Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, have agreed to provide documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own Russia probe, and are expected to testify at some point.

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U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin approved an intelligence operation to influence American voters and help tilt the election toward Trump. A former FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, was appointed special counsel in May to determine whether Trump’s campaign aides, including Kushner, illegally cooperated with Moscow.

In his statement, Kushner for the first time confirmed a report first published in the Washington Post that he had inquired at a December meeting with Sergey Kislyak, then-Moscow’s envoy in Washington, about using a secure communications line at the Russian embassy to conduct talks with Putin’s aides about Syria.

Kislyak, who returned to Moscow this month, turned him down.

The account raised new questions about Kushner’s motives in asking a senior Russian diplomat to conceal his communications from U.S. officials, and then not disclose the contact until it was revealed in the media.

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Democrats said Kushner’s statement was troubling and called on him to publicly testify under oath about what they called inconsistencies and omissions about his meetings and his security clearance forms.

“Kushner has repeatedly concealed information about his personal finances and meetings with foreign officials,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “There should be no presumption that he is telling the whole truth in this statement.”

White House officials have refused to comment until now on Kushner’s conversation with Kislyak at Trump Tower last year. The details leaked after Kislyak reported Kushner’s unusual request in diplomatic communications with Moscow that U.S. intelligence was secretly monitoring.

According to Kushner’s statement Monday, Kislyak asked him whether the Trump transition office had a secure line that Trump’s aides could use to talk to Russian generals about the war in Syria.

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Because none was available, Kushner said he asked about using one at the Russian embassy instead to conduct “direct discussions” with Moscow.

He said that after Kislyak told him that was impossible, they agreed to follow up after the inauguration. Kushner did not explain why the Trump team did not simply ask to use a secure U.S. government line.

“Nothing else occurred,” he said. “I did not suggest a ‘secret back channel.’ I did not suggest an ongoing secret form of communication for then or for when the administration took office.”

He also said he and Kislyak did not discuss lifting U.S. sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in 2014 after Putin’s government annexed Crimea. President Obama added other sanctions on Russia on Dec. 29 in retaliation for its meddling in the U.S. presidential race.

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Kushner said he also did not discuss U.S. sanctions on Russia at a Dec. 13 meeting with Sergey Gorkov, head of Moscow’s state-owned Vnesheconombank, Russia’s national development bank. He said he took the meeting at Kislyak’s urging because Gorkov had a “direct relationship” with Putin.

Kushner said Gorkov gave him a bag of dirt that he said was from Kushner’s grandparents’ village in Belarus and said he was friendly with Putin.

“There were no specific policies discussed. We had no discussions about the sanctions,” Kushner said, adding that he has had no contact with Gorkov since their meeting.

In March, the Russian bank described the session as part of a new outreach to “a number of representatives of the largest banks and business establishments of the United States, including Jared Kushner, the head of Kushner Companies.”

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But Kushner said he and Gorkov did not discuss “private business of any kind,” adding that he has not “relied on Russian funds” to finance his businesses and real estate holdings. It’s not clear if he meant that as a blanket denial of receiving Russian backing.

Kushner also sought to deflect criticism of his meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, with Natalia Veselnitskaya, insisting that he did not read emails that described her as “a Russian government attorney” who was part of “its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

The emails said she could provide documents that “would incriminate” Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and would be “very useful to your father.” But Kushner on Monday called the meeting a “waste of time,” and said that after 10 minutes, he quietly texted an assistant asking for a call on his cellphone to provide an excuse to leave.

“No part of the meeting I attended included anything about the campaign, there was no follow up to the meeting that I am aware of, I do not recall how many people were there (or their names), and I have no knowledge of any documents being offered or accepted,” he wrote in his statement.

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At least eight people are known to have attended the meeting, including Kushner, Trump Jr. and Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign chairman.

Kushner said his fourth meeting was a brief discussion with Kislyak at a spring 2016 reception, where the two exchanged pleasantries.

He disputed a Reuters report that he also had two telephone calls with Kislyak, saying he did not recall that, and his lawyers have found no record of them.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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