In December 2016, a few weeks after Donald Trump’s surprise election victory, Russian president Vladimir Putin convened what a Russian oligarch described as an “all-hands” meeting with some of his country’s top businessmen. A main topic of discussion: U.S. sanctions against Russia.
One of the oligarchs present was Petr Aven, co-founder of Alfa Bank, Russia’s biggest commercial bank. Aven had recently met with with Putin one on one to discuss the sanctions and what to do about them. Putin said he had been struggling to get messages to Trump’s inner circle, and urged Aven to take steps to protect his bank from additional U.S. penalties, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which details the episode. Aven perceived that as an order, not a request, according to Mueller, and understood “that there would be consequences if he did not follow through.”
Aven quickly understood that his mission was to contact the Trump transition team, and began an effort to contact Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Mueller’s nearly 450-page report granularly describes this and related episodes, revealing how Putin explicitly encouraged his country’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen to make contact with Trump’s transition team after the election. The directives help explain the “flurry” of contact the oligarchs made with Trump’s associates in the weeks following the reality TV star’s unexpected victory, Mueller wrote.
Even though Mueller did not establish any conspiracy between Trump’s team and Russia, the special counsel’s report shows how important it was to Putin to establish a backchannel line of communication to Trump’s transition team — and how receptive Trump’s associates were to the overtures.
“As soon as news broke that Trump had been elected President, Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new Administration,” Mueller’s team wrote in their final report.
In other words, after Trump pulled off his surprise victory in an election marred by Russia’s attempts to sow discord and buoy Trump’s candidacy, Putin wanted to cash in.
The attempts entailed outreaches “sanctioned at high levels of the Russian government, through business rather than political contacts.” Putin’s chief concern, according to Mueller, was getting the incoming Trump administration to roll back the U.S. sanctions hampering the Russian economy.
Among the oligarchs working to make inroads with Trump was Aven, the co-founder of Russia’s biggest private financial institution, Alfa Bank; Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund; and Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian-government owned bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB.
Two of the wealthy moguls succeeded.
Dmitriev was able to get a Putin-approved U.S.-Russia “reconciliation plan” to Kushner, who passed it to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And Gorkov scored a meeting with Kushner during the transition period to discuss U.S.-Russia relations, according to Mueller.
Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia, called the details of this outreach “striking.”
“It wasn’t just, ‘we need to build bridges for the sake of future dialogue,’” Weiss told POLITICO. “It was designed to head off further sanctions and, in Dmitriev’s case, to create a blueprint for recasting U.S. relations with Russia.”
And although Aven was rebuffed in his overtures, it was not for a lack of effort. At one point, Aven enlisted an American business associate, Richard Burt, formerly a U.S. ambassador to Germany, to help get through to Kushner.
According to Mueller, Aven told Burt that “someone high in the Russian government” had expressed “interest in establishing a communication channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team.”
Burt apparently found Aven’s request odd, but nonetheless approached Dmitri Simes, head of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded by Richard Nixon, about setting up a meeting.
But Simes demurred, according to the report, citing the heightened media scrutiny surrounding Russia’s election interference.
Aven then dropped the matter. Putin didn’t.
The report says the Russian president “continued to inquire about Aven’s efforts to connect to the Trump Administration in several subsequent quarterly meetings.”
Steve Hall, who served as the CIA’s chief of Russian operations during Barack Obama’s second term, told POLITICO that tasking oligarchs to conduct “hybrid wars and information operations” is par for the course for Putin.
But Hall, a public critic of Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community, said it is “inconceivable” that the oligarchs were Putin’s only method of infiltrating Trump’s inner circle.
“He’s going to rely on all the tools in his toolbox to go after these important targets,” he said.
Indeed, Mueller’s report includes a hefty section detailing the myriad ways Kremlin intermediaries — including fake online personas and others hiding their Moscow links — tried to woo those in and around the unlikely presidential candidate.
But the document did not address one of the most confounding mysteries that lingers from the election.
Alfa Bank, the institution Aven co-founded, had a computer server pinging a Trump Organization server during the 2016 race. The FBI reportedly investigated the pinging and said there could be an innocuous explanation, but never provided a conclusive reason for the server activity.
Still, where Aven failed, Dmitriev seemingly triumphed, using many of the same tactics.
Dmitriev scored meetings with both Erik Prince — an informal Trump campaign and transition team adviser — and a Kushner friend named Rick Gerson. Dmitriev, who Mueller says referred to Putin as his “boss,” worked with Gerson on the reconciliation proposal, implying that Putin had blessed the plan.
The offer apparently involved “jointly fighting terrorism” and “developing ‘win-win’ economic and investment initiatives.”
The Russian machinations portray “both how real that effort was and how much high-level buy-in it had within the Kremlin,” said Weiss. “And the fact that Kushner passed this along to Tillerson suggests that these policies were not a nonstarter — they had the attention of Trump’s senior-most staff.”
Dmitriev’s intermediary to Trump’s team was George Nader, a business associate who worked for the United Arab Emirates’ royal court.
Nader began cooperating with Mueller’s team in March 2018 and was given at least partial immunity for his testimony. Nader told Mueller that Dmitriev pressed him for an introduction to Kushner and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. Dmitriev, Nader said, wanted Nader to convey to the incoming Trump administration that Russia wanted “to start rebuilding the relationship in whatever is a comfortable pace for them.”
According to Mueller, Nader did just that over dinner with Erik Prince in January 2017. Prince then agreed to meet with Dmitriev in the Seychelles later that month.
In an interview with the House Intelligence Committee, however, Prince characterized that meeting as an impromptu encounter during an unrelated business trip. “I didn’t fly there to meet any Russian guy,” he told lawmakers.
He also told Congress that he met Dmitriev by chance at the bar and talked “over a beer.” According to Mueller, however, the two met in Nader’s villa for 30-45 minutes the same day Prince arrived. They met again at a restaurant to discuss Russia’s involvement in Libya.
And then there’s Sergey Gorkov, the CEO of Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank.
Gorkov secured a meeting with Kushner in December 2016 through Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, who insisted that Kushner meet “with someone who had a direct line to Putin,” according to Mueller. Kushner told the special counsel that he could not remember them discussing sanctions, and investigators were apparently unable to establish the true nature of their conversation.
The meeting, however, like the others, appears to have had Putin’s blessing.
An investment bank executive who spoke with Gorkov before his trip to New York recalled Gorkov saying that the Russian president had approved of the meeting — and that he would be reporting back to Putin upon his return.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine