WASHINGTON – At 9:34 on the November morning after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and an informal envoy for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, sent a text message to a Lebanese-American friend with ties to the Trump campaign.
Dmitriev wanted to connect quickly with someone in Trump’s inner circle, preferably Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner. By the end of the month, he was in touch with Rick Gerson, a friend of Kushner who manages a New York hedge fund.
The two discussed a potential joint investment venture. But the special counsel’s report released Thursday suggested that Dmitriev’s real interest lay elsewhere: He had been instructed by Putin, he told Gerson, to come up with a plan for “reconciliation” between the United States and Russia.
Dmitriev and Gerson worked together on a two-page proposal for how the nations could cooperate on a variety of fronts. That document, the report said, later made its way to Kushner, incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. Nothing came of the idea that the Russian sovereign fund would invest with Gerson.
The outreach by Dmitriev, according to the special counsel’s report, was part of a broad, makeshift effort by the Kremlin to establish ties to Trump that began early in the campaign and shifted into high gear after Trump’s victory. Those efforts were channeled largely through people in the business world in both countries. Especially after the election, they led to a conflation of diplomatic and financial interests that was a stark departure from the carefully calibrated contacts typically managed by an incoming administration in the United States.
Trump’s on-the-fly campaign, lack of preparation for victory and disorganized transition created a vacuum that, as Russia sought out avenues of access and influence, was quickly filled by a number of people from outside established foreign policy circles, many of whom appeared eager to portray themselves as access brokers or to generate business opportunities.
The special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy by Trump or his campaign to influence the outcome of the election. But his report made clear how vigorously Putin sought to find points of contact and influence with Trump’s team — and how many people on the American side were willing to participate to one degree or another in discussions that touched on topics as varied as Trump’s desire to build a Moscow hotel to U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
It is not clear that the Russians had much, if any, success in influencing U.S. policy through the back channels they established, although Trump’s comments often strike foreign policy experts as remarkably sympathetic to Putin. But the would-be influence peddlers in the United States and in Russia generally proceeded without much regard for the growing recognition that Moscow had just interfered in multiple ways with the U.S. election and that any contacts outside established channels — especially those that mixed business and diplomacy — carried substantial political risks.
Angela Stent, a Georgetown University professor who recently wrote a book on Putin’s reign, said Trump’s willingness to tolerate informal interlocutors in the foreign policy field was “unlike any administration I have ever seen” but not unlike Putin’s own style.
The Trump White House, she said, is comfortable with “all these informal ways of doing business,” including giving a heightened role to family members and friends who are not required to disclose potential conflicts of interest or abide by government ethics rules. “That’s how the Russians like to operate,” she said.
According to the Mueller report, Putin wasted no time enlisting Russian oligarchs to carry the Kremlin’s message after Trump’s election. He convened an “all-hands” meeting of the country’s top oligarchs in December to discuss the risk of the United States imposing further sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the election.
One of those oligarchs, Petr Aven, who leads Alfa-Bank, Russia’s largest commercial bank, also met privately with Putin shortly after Trump’s election. He told the special counsel that the Russian president expected him to build inroads with the incoming administration, then repeatedly queried him on his progress in the coming months.
On the U.S. side, a varied cast of characters was fielding overtures and proposals from Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainians during the campaign and transition, including: Gerson; George Nader, the Lebanese-American with Trump campaign connections; Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman; Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime fixer and lawyer; and Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary.
The template of Russia trying to advance its policy goals through the business interests of people in Trump’s orbit was set in mid-2015, almost as soon as Trump announced his candidacy. One of the earliest examples was the Russian response to Cohen’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow, a hotel construction project that Trump had chased for decades.
Cohen and another Trump associate, Felix Sater, were communicating with various Russians or their intermediaries about issues such as site plans, the need for a Russian developer and financing. But the answers often concerned whether Trump was willing to meet with Putin. The possibility that Trump would travel to Russia for that purpose lingered until he clinched the Republican nomination in mid-2016.
Trump’s revolving cast of aides and advisers included several who had contacts with Russians or were being aggressively wooed by them, like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.
One of the better-connected was Manafort, who spent five months as a top strategist and chairman for the Trump campaign. He had worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin; had spent the past decade carrying out the political agenda of Ukrainian oligarchs aligned with Moscow; and was in regular contact with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian associate whom prosecutors have linked to Russian intelligence.
For months during the campaign, Manafort was feeding internal polling data to Kilimnik, expecting it to be transferred to Deripaska and the Ukrainian oligarchs, the report states. In 2016 and early 2017, Manafort and Kilimnik also repeatedly discussed a proposal that would effectively have put part of eastern Ukraine under Russia’s control.
Despite many months of outreach before the election, the initial interactions between Trump’s team and the Kremlin were almost comical. Hope Hicks, Trump’s campaign secretary, received a 3 a.m. phone call on election night from a foreigner she could not understand, followed by an e-mail the next morning conveying Putin’s congratulations. She forwarded it to Kushner, writing: “Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!”