One week, three more Trump-Russia connections

(CNN)In December, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser met privately with the head of a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions.

In January, a major Trump donor with ties to his administration flew to a remote island and conferred with a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And four years ago, a Trump adviser interacted with a Russian spy trying to elicit intelligence.
    Three revelations in the past week have raised new questions from lawmakers about the Trump team’s relations with Russian leaders and broadened Congress’s inquiries into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia in its effort to sway the 2016 presidential election.
    The disclosures of private meetings came as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking at a NATO meeting, said the U.S. will maintain its sanctions against Russia until Moscow “reverses its actions” in neighboring Ukraine, where it has annexed part of the country.
    But questions remain about Trump’s commitment to the sanctions imposed in 2014 by President Barack Obama, which sources previously have told CNN are on the table for review.
    Here is a summary of the three previously undisclosed meetings.

    1) Erik Prince meets a Russian official in Seychelles

    The people
    • Erik Prince: Founder of former government security contractor Blackwater; major donor to Trump’s presidential campaign; brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; has ties to White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon
    • Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan: Crown prince of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf nation strongly opposed to Iran
    • Unnamed Russian businessman: Close to Putin
    The meeting
    • Date: Mid-January 2016, before Trump’s inauguration
    • Place: Seychelles, a remote island nation in the Indian Ocean
    • Topic: Zayed arranged a meeting between Prince and the Putin confidant to establish a possible back channel of communications between Moscow and the incoming Trump administration, a diplomatic source tells CNN.
    Both the White House and a Prince spokesman said Prince had “no role” on the transition team.
    The Washington Post, which first reported the meeting, reported that the UAE wanted to weaken the alliance between Russia and Iran, a move that would likely “require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.” NBC News quoted an intelligence source saying the Seychelles meeting focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
    The question
    • Why did Prince hold the meeting? How much influence does he have with the Trump administration?
    The significance
    During the transition, Prince met with members of Trump’s incoming national-security team, two sources tell CNN contributor Carl Bernstein. Prince also boasted during the transition about the influence he had with the administration, the sources said.
    A Prince spokesman said in a statement that the meeting “had nothing to do with President Trump” but did not explain the purpose of the meeting.
    Both the White House and a diplomatic source tell CNN that the administration was not involved in arranging the meeting.
    If Trump officials knew of or sanctioned Prince’s meeting, that raises new questions about Trump’s agenda for Russia and about any ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin. A push to separate Russia from its Middle East ally might require lifting or easing sanctions against Russia, which would face strong opposition from Europe and Congress, where there is strong bipartisan support for sanctions.

    2) Jared Kushner meets a Russian banker in New York

    The people
    • Jared Kushner: Son-in-law and close adviser to Trump
    • Sergey Gorkov: Chairman of Russian state-run development bank, Vnesheconombank (VEB), which is under U.S. sanctions; appointed to job by President Vladimir Putin
    The meeting
    • Date: December 2016
    • Place: New York City
    • Topic: This is disputed. The White House says Kushner was acting as an adviser to President-elect Trump during the transition period and was a “conduit” to world leaders until Trump named a Secretary of State. The bank says Gorkov met with Kushner as he was meeting with banking and business officials worldwide to discuss a new strategic plan for the financially troubled bank.
    The question
    • Why did Kushner meet with a Russian banker whose bank is under U.S. sanctions?
    The significance
    If Kushner and Gorkov discussed sanctions, their meeting would raise the prospect that Trump would lift the sanctions, a move he said during the campaign that he would consider.
    There is no indication that Kushner and Gorkov discussed sanctions. Several Russian banks – but not VEB – have been lobbying to lift or ease the sanctions since they were imposed.
    After the meeting was reported, Kushner volunteered to speak to Congressional committees that are investigating Russia’s election activities and any ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.
    Sen. Lindsay Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, questioned why Kushner would meet with a banker. “I think he needs to explain himself,” Graham told the Today Show on March 28.

    3) Carter Page meets a Russian spy in New York

    The people
    • Carter Page: Former foreign policy advisor to Trump campaign who advocated warmer relations with Russia and criticized U.S. sanctions; has business ties to Russia through his consulting firm, which focuses on oil and gas in Russia and former Soviet republics; invested in Gazprom, a large Russian natural-gas company.
    • Victor Podobnyy: A New York City-based Russian spy working out of Russia’s mission to the United Nations from December 2012
    The meeting
    • Date: Early 2013
    • Place: New York City
    • Topic: While Page was running his energy-consulting business, he met Podobnyy at an energy symposium in New York City. Thinking Podobnyy worked for Russia’s U.N. mission, Page maintained contact with him, exchanging emails about the energy business and occasionally meeting, according to court records. At one meeting, Carter gave Podobnyy documents about the energy business.
    Podobnyy was trying to cultivate Carter – and others in New York City – as an intelligence source for information about energy development and U.S. sanctions against Russia, according to court records.
    The question
    • Do Page’s interactions with Podobnyy signal any connection between him and the Kremlin?
    The significance
    Russian efforts to get intelligence from Page show the sensitivity of his energy-consulting work in Russia and his desirability to Russian intelligence operatives.
    Page is one of four former Trump campaign associates the FBI is investigating for contacts with Russians known to U.S. intelligence. While Page’s interactions with Podobnyy are a clear example of contact with a Russian spy, Page said in a statement that he believed Podobnyy was”a junior attach at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations.”
    In addition, the contact occurred three years before Page became associated with the Trump campaign – and association that both Page and Trump have minimized.
    Page said in a statement that he gave Podobnyy “nothing more than a few samples” from detailed lectures he gave at New York University for a course about energy markets and politics.
    In 2015, federal prosecutors charged Podobnny and two other Russian spies with failing to register as “foreign agents” with the U.S. government. But because he was assigned to Russia’s U.N. mission, Podobnny received diplomatic immunity and left the U.S. without facing the charges, according to court records.

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