Investigators probe European travel of Trump associates

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

Several people close to then-candidate Trump visited Europe during and after the campaign, including his son Donald Trump Jr., Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and foreign policy advisers Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Jeffrey Gordon. Their known destinations include London, Paris, Budapest and Athens.

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

When a House Intelligence Committee member asked Page last month about his end-of-summer 2016 visit to Budapest, for instance, Page initially said he “did a lot of sightseeing and went to a jazz club. Not much to report.”

Under further questioning, Page admitted to meeting with a Hungarian 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 late in the campaign to meet with and speak before a foreign policy group with ties to Russian officials. Cohen traveled three times to Europe last year, though he strongly denies the claim in a controversial dossier on Donald Trump’s Russia connections that he met secretly with a Russian official in Prague.

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

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

The House Intelligence Committee — one of 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 long sought to recruit or manipulate Americans traveling in Europe.

“We have a number of people on the Trump campaign who left the country in the course of the campaign, and we need to figure out why,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, the committee’s second-highest-ranking Democrat. “We want to know where they went, who they met with, if information was exchanged and whether any agreements were made.”

The trips have drawn increased scrutiny since it was disclosed in October that Papadopoulos met in London with suspected Russian operatives who promised "dirt," including hacked emails belonging to Clinton.

Papadapoulos, like Page an energy consultant and member of the Trump campaign’s national security advisory committee, has since pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about those contacts. He is now a cooperating witness for Mueller.

Swalwell said the committee has received information about the travel of “a host of others” besides Trump Jr., Cohen, Page and Papadopoulos. But, he said, “I cannot say now that we fully understand the depth of the travel and the meetings.”

In particular, the House Intelligence Committee is seeking more details on a trip to Paris that Trump Jr. took shortly before Election 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 husband, 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 policy think tank.

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

Congressional investigators are also trying to ascertain whether Cohen, one of Trump’s longest-serving and most trusted advisers, met with Russian operatives somewhere in Europe, including Prague, where the dossier alleges he attended a meeting to “clean up the mess” created by public disclosures of other Trump associates’ reported ties to Russia.

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

Cohen has strenuously denied that such a meeting occurred, and he provided a copy of his passport to BuzzFeed in May. The passport was stamped for entry and exit to the United Kingdom and Italy — but not the Czech Republic, whose capital is Prague. “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews,” Cohen tweeted on Jan. 10.

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

Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a visit to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his point of EU entry. A congressional official said the issue is “still active” 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 capacity as a Trump campaign adviser, according to local media reports.

One of the congressional officials said that committee members were aware of media reports that one of Papadopoulos’ trips to Athens, in mid-May of last year, may have overlapped with a visit by Putin. Papadopoulos had a meeting there with the country’s pro-Russian defense minister, Panos Kammenos, who also met with Putin around the time of the Russian leader’s visit.

Committee investigators are also interested in the travel of at least two Trump associates to Budapest, which U.S. officials consider an active base for Russian intelligence.

The authoritarian government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is staunchly pro-Putin. In July 2016, Orban became one of the first world leaders to endorse Trump for his anti-immigration policies. He is also 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 false information from some Trump associates. They complain that Republicans have opposed Democratic demands for banking, travel and communications records that could show in greater detail where the Trump associates went and with whom they met, according to Swalwell and a second congressional official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In particular, personal records like credit card statements could shed new light on whether Trump associates made any undisclosed stops inside Europe. The European Union does not issue passport stamps or keep other records of travel between 22 of the countries within its borders; the United Kingdom is one of six others that have opted out.

Adding to investigators’ concerns: tips from Dutch and British intelligence officials — shared with Washington last year and reported by The New York Times in March — that Trump associates met in those countries with Russian officials. To date there is no publicly known travel to the Netherlands by any Trump associates.

And the dossier, created by a former British intelligence officer once posted in Moscow, said the Kremlin used “operationally soft” cities in Europe such as Prague for meetings with Trump associates in order to evade detection and provide both sides with plausible deniability. That was especially the case after “things had become even ‘hotter’ since August” 2016 due to intense media focus on possible Trump-Russia ties, according to 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 used such a tactic in Europe. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials told POLITICO that Kremlin spies are trained to hold their meetings in neutral and inconspicuous locations.

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

Andrew Weiss, a former senior Russia policy adviser at the Clinton White House and State Department, said investigators are understandably suspicious about the European meetings given past Kremlin practice.

That’s especially true when Trump associates “have meetings in third countries in a way that seems deliberately intended to make discovery more difficult," said Weiss, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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

Even if their intentions were innocent, Trump associates might have served Russian interests by creating a pattern of secret dealings that could be used to blackmail them, Weiss said.

Budapest was a central topic during Page’s seven-hour grilling by the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 2.

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

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

Page also said he discussed "foreign policy things" with the ambassador, and conceded that he had some "general" discussions about U.S.-Russia relations with her and perhaps some 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, according to a transcript of the closed-door session that has since been released.

“Not right now,” 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 accomplish?”

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

J.D. Gordon, who supervised Page and Papadopoulos as director of the National Security Advisory Committee, told the Hungarian newspaper Mandiner that he also visited Hungary in 2016 to speak at a think tank with ties to the Orban government. Gordon denied any wrongdoing and had no further comment.

During Page’s appearance before the House Intelligence Committee last month, Schiff’s questions suggested interest in other as-yet-undisclosed trips to Budapest by Trump associates.

Schiff asked Page whether any of the officials he met with in Budapest indicated “to you that anyone else from the Trump campaign had been in Budapest that year?”

At first, Page said no.

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

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories