Why Jared Kushner has some explaining to do

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Story highlights

  • Hagar Chemali: If sanctions against a world power and its entities are a big deal, so, too, are top advisers to the then-President-elect taking secret meetings with representatives of those entities
  • Congress and the FBI need to get to the bottom of Jared Kushner's interactions with a sanctioned Russian bank, she writes

Hagar Hajjar Chemali is former Treasury spokeswoman for terrorism and financial Intelligence and former spokeswoman for the US Mission to the United Nations. She is founder and CEO of Greenwich Media Strategies LLC. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)March 17, 2014, the day the US government first imposed sanctions against Russia for its destabilizing activity in Ukraine, was a snow day. President Barack Obama had issued a new executive order (E.O. 13661) as part of a wider policy response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Roads were empty as I drove to the office, and I remember thinking -- people are barely waking up, and they don't realize that we're about to levy sanctions against a world power. That was a big deal then, and it's a big deal now.
Hagar Chemali
The White House and the US Department of the Treasury, where I was spokeswoman for terrorism and financial intelligence at the time, would go on to work closely with the European Union to continue the sanctions and to make sure they were very carefully and intricately designed to hit Russia where we thought it would make a difference (with minimal backfire on US and European business interests).
    Our goal was to coerce the Russian government to cease its destabilizing behavior in the region and later to support the cease-fire and peace process.
    As part of that effort, in July 2014, the US Treasury enacted measures against Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank, also known as VEB bank. This bank is not only owned by the Russian government, but its board and members are close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in fact has the authority to appoint the bank's president.
    That was nearly three years ago, but is still very relevant, as we now know that Jared Kushner met with the chairman of VEB bank, Sergey Gorkov, in December before President Donald Trump took office, and that investigators and journalists are still working to illuminate the reasons for their meeting.
    If sanctions against a world power and its entities are a big deal, so, too, are top advisers to the President-elect taking secret meetings with representatives of those entities. Congress and the FBI need to get to the bottom of this meeting and the White House should be careful not to imply, even inadvertently, that Russia sanctions are up for discussion in exchange for anything less than resolution of the reasons for which they were imposed.
    While a private citizen meeting with a sanctioned individual or someone associated with a sanctioned entity like VEB bank is not in itself a sanctions violation, the move at best reflects poor judgment and at worst, could pose violations of the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in disagreements with the United States.
    As someone whose job involved devising sanctions, I have to ask -- did Kushner know VEB was sanctioned by the United States? If so, did he understand why and decide to pursue the meeting regardless?
    Kushner's meeting with the chairman of VEB bank was a move few who have political experience would make -- specifically because VEB is a bank that is sanctioned by the United States. Aside from the terrible optics, a move like that, made by someone who would weeks later become a senior adviser to the President, could put the United States in a vulnerable position with a known adversary.
    It's a negotiating no-no. And if it was meant to ultimately lead to the lifting of sanctions in exchange for an improved relationship with Russia, then those steps were not Kushner's to offer, certainly not at the time the meeting took place in December 2016.
    Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, reportedly recommended Kushner meet with Gorkov to help establish a new channel that could repair US.-Russia relations. It is possible that Kushner met with Gorkov with the goal of establishing a relationship that could be fruitful in the future; however, the bank claims Gorkov met with Kushner in his private sector capacity, not in his role with the Trump campaign.
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    Already, the stories aren't matching up. Congress and the FBI need to find out whether Gorkov raised the question of US sanctions and, if so, how Kushner responded.
    The stakes here cannot be overstated. Any message -- direct or indirect -- to the Russian government that the sanctions are up for debate runs the risk of implying that Russia can continue pursuing its expansionist goals in Eastern Europe without recourse. And that's the wrong message to send.