Investigators probe European travelling of Trump associates

Congressional investigators are scrutinizing trips to Europe utilized last year by several associates of President Donald Trump, amid concern they could have met with Kremlin-linked operatives as part of Russia’s interference on the 2016 presidential election.

Several people near then-candidate Trump visited Europe after and during the marketing campaign, including his son Donald Trump Jr., Trump legal professional Michael Cohen and foreign policy advisers Carter Site, George Papadopoulos and Jeffrey Gordon. Their known places involve London, Paris, Budapest and Athens.

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But their explanations of these trips have not necessarily been forthcoming, and some congressional investigators find their stories suspect.

Whenever a House Intelligence Committee member asked Site last month about his end-of-summer 2016 visit to Budapest, for instance, Page initially said he “did a whole lot of sightseeing and went to a jazz club. Very little to report.”

Under further questioning, Site admitted to ending up in a Hungarian federal government official who some congressional investigators suspect is an intelligence officer and cryptically offered that “there may have been one Russian person passing through there.”

Trump Jr. flew to Paris later in the marketing campaign to meet with and speak before a foreign insurance policy group with ties to Russian officials. Cohen traveled three times to Europe this past year, though he highly denies the say in a controversial dossier on Donald Trump’s Russia connections that he met secretly with a Russian official in Prague.

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Such trips have raised concerns about whether the Trump associates were approached by Russian intelligence agents within the Kremlin’s election meddling or even sought face-to-face meetings themselves, possibly to go over acquiring incriminating information in Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, according to several congressional officials familiar with the probes.

Trump, his legal professionals and his aides have all repeatedly insisted that they did not collude with the Russians.

The House Intelligence Committee – among three congressional panels investigating Russian meddling in the election along with special counsel Robert Mueller – is particularly interested in how the European travel might shed light on Moscow’s broader effort to forge ties with Trump campaign officials, the congressional officials said. Russian intelligence services have very long sought to recruit or manipulate Americans traveling in Europe.

“We have lots of people on the Trump marketing campaign who left the united states throughout the marketing campaign, and we have to figure out why,” stated Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, the committee’s second-highest-ranking Democrat. “You want to know where they proceeded to go, who they met with, if facts was exchanged and whether any agreements had been made.”

The trips have drawn increased scrutiny because it was disclosed in October that Papadopoulos met in London with suspected Russian operatives who promised “dirt,” including hacked emails owned by Clinton.

Papadapoulos, like Page an energy consultant and person in the Trump campaign’s national reliability advisory committee, possesses since pleaded guilty to lying to federal government agents about those contacts. He is nowadays a cooperating witness for Mueller.

Swalwell said the committee offers received details about the travel of “a host of others” besides Trump Jr., Cohen, Site and Papadopoulos. But, he said, “I cannot state now that we grasp the depth of the travel around and the meetings.”

In particular, the home Cleverness Committee is seeking more details on a journey to Paris that Trump Jr. took shortly before Election Working day. He lunched at the Hotel Ritz Paris with Randa Kassis, a Syrian peace activist with reported ties to Russian officials, along with her French partner, who reportedly nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. That night, the younger Trump was paid at least $50,000 to speak at the husband’s foreign insurance policy think tank.

Trump has not explained why he flew overseas at such a crucial point in the marketing campaign. But Kassis boasted in a post-election Facebook content that she acquired “succeeded to complete Trump, through the talks along with his son, the idea of how [the U.S. and Russia] can cooperate alongside one another” to end Syria’s civil war.

Congressional investigators are also trying to see whether Cohen, among Trump’s longest-serving & most reliable advisers, met with Russian operatives somewhere on Europe, including Prague, where the dossier alleges he attended a meeting to “clean up the mess” created by open public disclosures of additional Trump associates’ reported ties to Russia.

Cohen has come under close scrutiny for many Trump-Russia controversies, including discussing with top Kremlin officials during the GOP primaries a proposal to build a Trump construction in Moscow. He likewise was associated with a proposed pro-Russian peace plan for Ukraine involving Felix Sater, a former Trump business associate with Russian federal government connections.

Cohen has strenuously denied that such a meeting occurred, and he provided a backup of his passport to BuzzFeed in May. The passport was stamped for access and exit to the uk and Italy – but not the Czech Republic, whose capital can be Prague. “I have never gone to Prague in my lifestyle. #fakenews,” Cohen tweeted on Jan. 10.

His passport stamps show that he traveled twice to London in 2016 as soon as to Italy, from July 9 to July 17.

Several people near then-candidate Trump visited Europe after and during the campaign, including foreign policy adviser Carter Site. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a check out to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his level of EU entry. A congressional official said the problem is “still energetic” for investigators.

Papadopoulos made at least two visits in 2016 to Athens, where he met with the president of Greece and other top officials in his capability as a Trump marketing campaign adviser, according to area media reports.

Among the congressional officials said that committee people were alert to media reports that among Papadopoulos’ journeys to Athens, in mid-May of this past year, may have got overlapped with a check out by Putin. Papadopoulos acquired a meeting there with the country’s pro-Russian protection minister, Panos Kammenos, who likewise met with Putin around enough time of the Russian leader’s visit.

Committee investigators are actually also thinking about the travel of at least several Trump associates to Budapest, which U.S. officials consider a dynamic base for Russian intelligence.

The authoritarian government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is staunchly pro-Putin. In July 2016, Orban became among the first environment leaders to endorse Trump for his anti-immigration policies. He is likewise a vocal Putin ally who opposes continued EU sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Congressional Democrats say their efforts to learn more about the trips have been been hamstrung by incomplete or fake information from some Trump associates. They complain that Republicans contain opposed Democratic demands for banking, travel and communications data that could show in greater detail where the Trump associates proceeded to go and with whom they met, according to Swalwell another congressional official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Specifically, personal records like credit card statements could shed different mild on whether Trump associates produced any undisclosed stops inside Europe. The European Union does not concern passport stamps or retain other records of travel between 22 of the countries within its borders; the uk is among six others that have opted out.

Adding to investigators’ concerns: tips from Dutch and British intelligence officials – shared with Washington this past year and reported by The New York Instances in March – that Trump associates met in all those countries with Russian officials. To time there is absolutely no publicly known happen to be holland by any Trump associates.

And the dossier, created by a former British intelligence officer once published in Moscow, stated the Kremlin used “operationally soft” cities in European countries such as for example Prague for meetings with Trump associates as a way to evade detection and provide both sides with plausible deniability. That was specifically the case after “issues had become actually ‘hotter’ since August” 2016 due to intense media give attention to likely Trump-Russia ties, in line with the dossier, much of which has not been verified.

Russia’s intelligence services – known informally as the FSB, the GRU and the SVR – have for decades utilized such a tactic on Europe. Current and ex – U.S. intelligence officials advised POLITICO that Kremlin spies happen to be trained to carry their meetings in neutral and inconspicuous spots.

One source familiar with the investigation said committee Republicans have resisted Democrats’ record requests mainly because they disagree that any of the witnesses have been untruthful or deceptive.

Andrew Weiss, a good former senior Russia insurance policy adviser at the Clinton White colored House and State Department, said investigators happen to be understandably suspicious about the European meetings presented past Kremlin practice.

That’s particularly true when Trump associates “have meetings in third countries in a manner that seems deliberately designed to make discovery more challenging,” said Weiss, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The pattern of attempts to either not disclose such contacts or even to misreport the substance of these is well established,” Weiss added.

Actually if their intentions were innocent, Trump associates may have served Russian interests by creating a style of technique dealings that may be utilized to blackmail them, Weiss said.

Budapest was a good central issue during Page’s seven-hour grilling by the home Cleverness Committee on Nov. 2.

At first, Site said he mainly remembered his four-time weekend for a trip down the Danube and the jazz golf club visit.

But under aggressive questioning by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a ex – prosecutor like Swalwell, Site conceded that he met with Hungary’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Réka Szemerkényi, to check out through to a conversation they had at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.

Donald Trump Jr. flew to Paris later in the marketing campaign to meet with and speak before a foreign insurance policy group with ties to Russian officials. | Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Site also said he discussed “foreign policy issues” with the ambassador, and conceded that he previously some “general” discussions about U.S.-Russia relations with her and perhaps various other Hungarian officials. He insisted, though, that he could not remember any details.

“You don’t remember the names of anyone you met with or what their positions were in the Hungarian government?” Schiff asked, relating to a good transcript of the closed-door session which has since been released.

“Not at this time,” Page responded, adding that the trip details “are a distant memory.”

“You went all the way to Budapest,” Schiff said, “and you can’t remember who you met with and what you hoped to perform?”

Since that time, Hungarian press has reported that Site did, in fact, meet with senior advisers to Orban, including his U.S. affairs adviser Jenő Megyesy.

J.D. Gordon, who supervised Site and Papadopoulos as director of the National Reliability Advisory Committee, advised the Hungarian newspaper Mandiner that he likewise visited Hungary in 2016 to speak at a believe tank with ties to the Orban federal government. Gordon denied any wrongdoing and acquired no further comment.

During Page’s appearance prior to the House Cleverness Committee previous month, Schiff’s questions suggested interest in additional as-yet-undisclosed journeys to Budapest by Trump associates.

Schiff asked Site whether any of the officials he met with in Budapest indicated “for you that other people from the Trump marketing campaign had been in Budapest that season?”

Initially, Page said no.

Then, he conceded, Szemerkényi “may have mentioned someone else passing through.”

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