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White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner speaks to members of the White House press following his appearance before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Washington, U.S. July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts(reuters_tickers)
By Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, emerged from behind the scenes on Monday to tell Senate investigators he had no part in any Kremlin attempt to meddle in the U.S. election despite having met Russians four times last year.
"All of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign," Kushner later told reporters outside the White House. "I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did."
Kushner, 36, a senior White House adviser, met Senate Intelligence Committee staff behind closed doors for about two hours. Two sources with knowledge of what Kushner told them said the session was pleasant and conversational.
In an 11-page written statement Kushner made public before the meeting, the real estate businessman portrayed himself as new to politics when he became a top adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign. The letter was his fullest account to date of contacts with Russian officials.
A businessman married to Trump's eldest daughter Ivanka Trump, Kushner has rarely spoken in public since his father-in-law launched his presidential campaign in mid-2015. "I am not a person who has sought the spotlight," he wrote in the letter.
Trump prevailed over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in November 2016 because he ran a "smarter campaign" and to suggest otherwise "ridicules those who voted for him," Kushner said at the White House. He took no questions.
The congressional committee is one of several investigating the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, engaged in a hacking and propaganda campaign to try to tilt the November election in Trump's favour.
Russia denies the accusation and Trump denies his campaign colluded with Moscow.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is leading a separate probe into the Russia matter.
A steady drip of information, much of it leaked to the news media, about contacts that Trump aides had with Russians has raised questions about possible collusion with Moscow, viewed by many of Trump's fellow Republicans and rival Democrats as a hostile power trying to undermine U.S. interests around the world.
Trump, who has called the Russia probes politically motivated, lashed out at the investigations in Twitter messages on Monday.
Kushner did not initially disclose any meetings with Russians on forms he filed to get a government security clearance for his work in the White House. He has since revised those forms several times.
According to the sources with knowledge of Monday's meeting, Kushner told the investigators that his lawyers and staff had not handled his security clearance form properly but they informed the FBI immediately when they realized it had been sent before it was complete, and then submitted a complete version. He said in his written statement that the initial form omitted not just Russian contacts but also all foreign contacts.
MEETING WITH RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR
In his written statement Kushner said he first met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Washington in April 2016 and they shook hands.
He said that in a Dec. 1 meeting with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador asked if there was a secure line in Trump's transition office to facilitate a discussion with Russian generals about Syria, and Kushner replied there was not.
Kushner said he asked if there was an existing communications channel at the Russian Embassy that could be used, but Kislyak said that was not possible and they agreed to follow up after the inauguration.
"Nothing else occurred. I did not suggest a 'secret back channel,'" Kushner said.
Kushner said he met on Dec. 13, with Sergei Gorkov, the head of Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank, because of Kislyak's insistence and because the Russian had a "direct relationship" with Putin.
"He introduced himself and gave me two gifts - one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village," Kushner said.
He said that neither sanctions imposed by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration nor Kushner's business activities were discussed. Vnesheconombank has been subjected to U.S. economic sanctions since mid-2014 over Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated under Obama and Trump has said he wants to improve ties with Moscow, at times expressing admiration for Putin.
'NEED EXCUSE' TO LEAVE MEETING
U.S. lawmakers have said they want to hear about a June 2016 meeting involving Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
The younger Trump has released emails that showed he welcomed the prospect of receiving damaging information from the Russian government about Clinton.
Kushner and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort were also at the meeting but Kushner described it as a waste of time and said there was no discussion about the campaign during the time he was there.
"I actually emailed an assistant from the meeting after I had been there for ten or so minutes and wrote 'Can u pls call me on my cell? Need excuse to get out of meeting.'"
Kushner is scheduled to address the House intelligence panel on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Eric Walsh, Steve Holland, Warren Strobel and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Ned Parker and Karen Freifeld in New York; Writing by Jeff Mason, Caren Bohan; Editing by Frances Kerry, Grant McCool and Howard Goller)