— -- ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – A top Russian bank official who met privately with Jared Kushner shortly after Donald Trump’s election brushed off questions Thursday about the purpose of the meeting, which was scheduled at the request of Russia’s U.S. ambassador and came at a time Kushner’s real estate business was confronting significant financial stress.
“We have absolutely nothing to add,” said Sergey Gorkov, who heads the U.S. office of VneshEconomBank, or VEB, when questioned by reporters at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “We have a lot of meetings.”
Gorkov and Kushner have provided conflicting accounts of the meeting, and congressional sources tell ABC News that the episode raised red flags for investigators, in part because the United States has imposed economic sanctions on the bank due to its political ties in Russia.
“The question is … why [meet with] a Russian bank that is sanctioned, and has been sanctioned since 2014?” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. “Why is this the first priority, or one of the first priorities that Mr. Kushner is taking on as a member of the President's staff?”
The White House confirmed in March that Kushner met in December with Gorkov at the suggestion of the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, following a report on the meeting in The New York Times. A senior White House official told ABC News at that time that Kushner’s conversation with Gorkov was "general and inconsequential" and that Kushner took the meeting as part of his campaign role of interfacing with foreign dignitaries.
The bank, however, described the meeting differently, charactering the discussions as "negotiations" in a statement provided to ABC News.
“During 2016, when preparing the new Vnesheconombank's Strategy, the Bank's CEOs repeatedly met with representatives of the leading global financial institutions in Europe, Asia and America. In the course of negotiations the parties discussed the business practices applied by foreign development banks, as well as most promising business lines and sectors. The roadshow meetings devoted to Vnesheconombank's Strategy 2021 were held with representatives of major US banks and business circles, including the CEO of Kushner Companies Mr. Jared Kushner.”
At the time, Kushner Companies, the family's real estate firm, was in the midst of what it has described in public statements as "active, advanced negotiations ... with a number of potential investors" about the redevelopment of the financially troubled skyscraper it owns at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
On March 24, congressional Democrats released a letter expressing concern about the company's potential entanglements with foreign partners in the proposed refinancing of the building as well as the continued uncertainty about the extent to which Kushner has separated himself from the family real estate business, which he oversaw until recently.
"Even if Mr. Kushner has in fact divested from 666 Fifth Avenue, it appears his immediate family stands to benefit from a deal with [Chinese holding company] Anbang, potentially violating federal ethics laws that bar 'an employee [from using] his public office for his own private gain ... or for the private gain of friends, relatives or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity,'" reads the letter signed by Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, and Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tom Carper of Delaware, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Gary Peters of Michigan.
Kushner, 36, who is married to President Trump’s daughter Ivanka, played a central role in his father-in-law's 2016 campaign. After he took a White House job as a special assistant to President Trump, he took steps to divest in some aspects of his family’s vast real estate empire, including the Midtown Manhattan skyscraper – though questions remain about exactly what financial interest he still may hold.
The White House has consistently defended Kushner, saying the meetings he held during the transition were intended to build relationships with foreign officials.
“Mr. Kushner was acting in his capacity as a transition official and had many similar discussions with foreign representatives after the election,” said Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, in a statement. “In these meetings, Mr. Kushner worked to build relationships that would help advance the President's foreign policy goals. For example, he also started conversations with leaders from Saudi Arabia that led to the President's recent successful international trip. Mr. Kushner has consistently said that he will share what he knows about these meetings, and the details pertaining to, which were previously reported in March.”
To date, neither Kushner nor the family real estate firm has explained the nature of the meeting with VEB. An official representing the Kushner firm responded to ABC News' questions Wednesday evening, saying Kushner was the only executive from his family's real estate firm to attend.
"VEB is not providing financing, lending or any other services to Kushner Companies," the official said.
Congressional sources told ABC News they have additional concerns about interactions with VEB Bank because of the recent involvement of a senior VEB executive, Evgeny Buryakov, in a Russian spy ring dismantled by the FBI. Buryakov was sentenced to 30 months in prison for gathering intelligence for the Russian Federation as an agent under nonofficial cover, known as NOC.
He has since been deported to Russia, but throughout the episode, VEB Bank financed Buryakov’s legal fees.
ABC News’ Matthew Mosk contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.