I dutifully sat down this morning and read Jared Kushner’s prepared statement for Congress. I was impressed with the quality and clarity of his defense. He has some good lawyers and I believe he is following their advice unlike his father-in-law. However, there are still some troubling things to discuss.
One of them involves a now infamous speech that Donald Trump gave at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. From Kushner’s statement we learn the surprising fact that he’s taking full responsibility for the idea behind doing that speech, as well as much of the organizing work that went into it. Here’s the relevant part in its full context:
With respect to my contacts with Russia or Russian representatives during the campaign, there were hardly any. The first that I can recall was at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. in April 2016. This was when then candidate Trump was delivering a major foreign policy speech. Doing the event and speech had been my idea, and I oversaw its execution. I arrived at the hotel early to make sure all logistics were in order. After that, I stopped into the reception to thank the host of the event, Dimitri Simes, the publisher of the bi-monthly foreign policy magazine, The National Interest, who had done a great job putting everything together. Mr. Simes and his group had created the guest list and extended the invitations for the event. He introduced me to several guests, among them four ambassadors, including Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. With all the ambassadors, including Mr. Kislyak, we shook hands, exchanged brief pleasantries and I thanked them for attending the event and said I hoped they would like candidate Trump’s speech and his ideas for a fresh approach to America’s foreign policy. The ambassadors also expressed interest in creating a positive relationship should we win the election. Each exchange lasted less than a minute; some gave me their business cards and invited me to lunch at their embassies. I never took them up on any of these invitations and that was the extent of the interactions.
What makes this so interesting is that everyone in Washington DC who closely follows the Russians’ lobbying efforts assumed that the idea behind it came from Paul Manafort. For example, James Kirchick wrote at the time of the speech that it was all Manafort’s doing:
Trump’s speech — introduced by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations, Afghanistan and Iraq and about as establishment a figure as one finds in the Republican foreign policy firmament — represents the latest phase of a makeover strategy implemented by Paul Manafort, a longtime Republican aide whom Trump hired last month to professionalize his improvisational, unwieldy campaign…
…That Trump would choose the Center for the National Interest as the place to premier his new seriousness on foreign policy has Manafort’s fingerprints all over it. For Manafort and the Center have something very important in common: both have ties to the Russian regime of President Vladimir Putin, (whose ambassador to the United States sat in the front row for Trump’s address).
Insofar as anyone besides Manafort was deemed responsible for doing this speech under the auspices of a Putin mouthpiece, it was a man named Richard Burt whose name has largely disappeared from discussions about possible coordination:
Another association connecting Trump to the Center is Richard Burt, chairman of the National Interest’s advisory council, and a former ambassador to Germany and State Department official during the Reagan administration. According to a knowledgeable source, Burt, who had previously worked as an unpaid advisor to former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, has been enlisted by Manafort to join Trump’s campaign and helped draft his speech (neither Burt nor Manafort responded to inquiries). Burt sits on the senior advisory board of the Russian Alfa Bank.
It’s strange to think that Kushner might have been the person who decided to go to the Center for the National Interest as the host for Trump’s first major foreign policy address. Why would he even know a person like Dmitri Simes?
This cast of characters was originally associated with the campaign of Rand Paul which fizzled out badly, but they seem to have attached themselves to Trump’s campaign as a group last April. Mr. Simes and Mr. Burt were named as a foreign policy advisers to Paul’s campaign, which was controversial in foreign policy circles at the time because Simes is well-known to be extraordinarily close to Vladimir Putin.
Simes’ views and connections are widely known in Russia policy circles. Last September, days after Vladimir Putin published a column in the New York Times denouncing American exceptionalism, Simes joined the Russian president on stage at the Valdai International Discussion Club forum in Russia for a televised panel discussion.
Flanked by three other panelists—Germany’s former defense minister and France and Italy’s former prime ministers—Simes seemed out of place at the high-ranking, Kremlin-sponsored forum.
“No one directly addresses Putin at Dimitri Simes’ level,” noted one Washington-based Russia policy expert. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Putin, in good spirits from his recent success at preventing U.S. military action against the Syrian regime, chatted with Simes about U.S. and Russia policy and quizzed his “American friend and colleague” about the U.S. budget deficit.
“I fully support President Putin’s tough stance [on Syria],” said Simes, according to the transcript released by the Kremlin.
“Not because I’m not an American patriot, but because I believe that baby talk among great powers is not the way to reach an agreement. One has to understand what to expect from the other country, and what their mettle is.”
He hoped recent events would “open up a real opportunity for Russian-American relations.”
The appearance with Putin “set off a lot of internal alarm bells with Russian experts,” said one Russia policy specialist.
“You don’t get onstage with Putin, and sit onstage with Putin, and ask him questions in public, unless everything has been greased and unless you’re not gonna do anything that detracts from the message.”
Simes has been dogged throughout his career by allegations that his work and his organizations have a pro-Kremlin slant.
I may report more extensively in the future about Russia’s influence over the Center for the National Interest and another think tank that the Kremlin directly funds named the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation that was “formed in New York in 2008 under Putin adviser Andranik Migranyan.” Ironically, it was a WikiLeaks disclosure that revealed that Mr. Migranyan had been personally appointed as head of the New York think tank by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Here’s a taste of how that looks:
Today, the Center for the National Interest often partners with the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.
“The Center for the National Interest periodically arranges events with the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation as we have done with a number of other organizations in Russia across Russia’s political spectrum,” said Saunders. “These events have always included individuals with differing perspectives who often disagree with one another during the discussion.”
Migranyan was selected to run the IDC by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to a confidential State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.
“Further boosting Migranyan’s candidacy is his well-known loyalty to the Kremlin and, especially, Putin and Medvedev, whom he describes as ‘democrats’ who support a liberal economic regime,” said the cable.
Migranyan has often been given a platform both by the Center for the National Interest and in the National Interest.
Last May, the IDC and the Center for the National Interest held a joint press conference during which Migranyan defended Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
In a National Interest article last February, Migranyan said American conservatives should “recognize Putin is the same type of ‘great communicator’ that Reagan represented—a bold leader and visionary.”
“I would like to turn to O’Reilly, Krauthammer, Senator McCain, Dennis Miller, and others,” wrote Migranyan. “I would like to appeal to them paraphrasing Safire: ‘Gentlemen, do not be afraid to say that you love Putin, that you dream of such a leader for the United States.’
I’m tempted to say that I simply do not believe Kushner when he says that having Dimiri Simes host the Mayflower Hotel event was his idea. He may have taken over the project and seen that it went smoothly, but the choice to go with a den of Kremlin-controlled hosts could only have originated with someone with prior experience working with Putin’s D.C. operatives.
It is of course of interest what Trump said in the speech and that Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak was in the front row. It is important to know that Kislyak reported back to Moscow that he had met on the sidelines of this event with Jeff Sessions who claims to have no memory of their conversation. But more significant and damning than any of that was the decision to go to the Center for the National Interest and Dimitri Simes as sponsors and hosts.
Kushner needs to answer a lot of questions about how this came about, because it almost certainly was not his idea. And, if it actually was, that opens up a lot of new questions.