Prodded by Putin, Russians Sought Back Channels to Trump Through the Business World

WASHINGTON — At 9:34 on the November morning after Donald J. Trump was elected president in 2016, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and an informal envoy for President Vladimir V. Putin, sent a text message to a Lebanese-American friend with ties to the Trump campaign.

Mr. Dmitriev wanted to connect quickly with someone in Mr. 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 Mr. Kushner’s 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 Mr. Dmitriev’s real interest lay elsewhere: He had been instructed by Mr. Putin, he told Mr. Gerson, to come up with a plan for “reconciliation” between the United States and Russia.

Mr. Dmitriev and Mr. 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 Mr. Kushner, Rex W. Tillerson, the incoming secretary of state, and Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist. Nothing came of the idea that the Russian sovereign fund would invest with Mr. Gerson.

The outreach by Mr. Dmitriev, according to the special counsel’s report, was part of a broad, makeshift effort by the Kremlin to establish ties to Mr. Trump that began early in the campaign and shifted into high gear after Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 S. Mueller III, did not find a criminal conspiracy by Mr. Trump or his campaign to influence the outcome of the election. But his report made clear how vigorously Mr. Putin sought to find points of contact and influence with Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s desire to build a Moscow hotel to United States policy toward Ukraine.

It is not clear that the Russians had much, if any, success in influencing American policy through the back channels they established, although Mr. Trump’s comments often strike foreign policy experts as remarkably sympathetic to Mr. 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 American election and that any contacts outside established channels — especially those that mixed business and diplomacy — carried substantial political risks.

Angela E. Stent, a Georgetown University professor who recently wrote a book on Mr. Putin’s reign, said Mr. Trump’s willingness to tolerate informal interlocutors in the foreign policy field was “unlike any administration I have ever seen” but not unlike Mr. 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, Mr. Putin wasted no time enlisting Russian oligarchs to carry the Kremlin’s message after Mr. 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 Mr. Putin shortly after Mr. 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 American side, a varied cast of characters was fielding overtures and proposals from Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainians during the campaign and transition, including: Mr. Gerson; George Nader, the Lebanese-American with Trump campaign connections; Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman; Michael D. Cohen, the president’s longtime fixer and lawyer; and Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder and brother of Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s pick for education secretary.

Asked about his interactions with the executive at the Russian sovereign wealth fund, a spokesman for Mr. Gerson said in a statement that he engaged in no business with the fund and merely “presented personal ideas on humanitarian issues.”

Only rarely did anyone throw up a red flag, according to the report. In May 2016, after a campaign official reported that Alexander Torshin, an officer of a Russian state-owned bank, wanted to discuss an invitation from Mr. Putin to meet with Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner, a top adviser to Mr. Trump, responded: “Pass on this. A lot of people come claiming to carry messages.” He added: “Be careful.”

But Mr. Kushner did not always heed his own advice. In mid-December 2016, he agreed to a one-on-one meeting with a Russian official he had been told had a direct line to Mr. Putin: Sergey Gorkov, head of the state-owned bank Vnesheconombank, which was under United States sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

An American investment banker with many contacts in Russia, Robert Foresman, said that Mr. Gorkov told him before the meeting that Mr. Putin had approved his trip and that he would report back to Mr. Putin afterward, the special counsel’s report states.

Mr. Kushner told the prosecutors that he did not prepare for the encounter. No one on the transition team even bothered to search Google for Mr. Gorkov’s name. Prosecutors were unable to resolve what was discussed. Mr. Gorkov publicly suggested it was business, while Mr. Kushner said it was diplomatic issues.

At the time, Mr. Kushner’s family business was hunting for investors so it could hold onto its flagship property, a Manhattan office building. As the special counsel’s report noted in recounting the meeting between Mr. Kushner and Mr. Gorkov, there “had been public reporting both about efforts to secure lending on the property and possible conflicts of interest for Kushner arising out of his company’s borrowing from foreign lenders.”

The template of Russia trying to advance its policy goals through the business interests of people in Mr. Trump’s orbit was set in mid-2015, almost as soon as Mr. Trump announced his candidacy. One of the earliest examples was the Russian response to Mr. Cohen’s pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow, a hotel construction project that Mr. Trump had chased for decades.

Mr. Cohen and another Trump associate, Felix Sater, were communicating with various Russians or their intermediaries about issues like site plans, the need for a Russian developer and financing. But the answers often concerned whether Mr. Trump was willing to meet with Mr. Putin. The possibility that Mr. Trump would travel to Russia for that purpose lingered until he clinched the Republican nomination in mid-2016.

Mr. 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 Mr. Manafort, who spent five months as a top strategist and chairman for the Trump campaign. He had worked for Oleg V. 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 V. Kilimnik, a Russian associate whom prosecutors have linked to Russian intelligence.

For months during the campaign, Mr. Manafort was feeding internal polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, expecting it to be transferred to Mr. Deripaska and the Ukrainian oligarchs, the report states. In 2016 and early 2017, Mr. Manafort and Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s team and the Kremlin were almost comical. Hope Hicks, Mr. Trump’s campaign secretary, received a 3 a.m. phone call on election night from a foreigner she could not understand, followed by an email the next morning conveying Mr. Putin’s congratulations. She forwarded it to Mr. Kushner, writing: “Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!”

But Mr. Putin quickly dispatched his big players, like Mr. Dmitriev, the chief executive of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

On Nov. 9, 2016, Mr. Dmitriev contacted Mr. Nader, an adviser to the royal court of United Arab Emirates whom he knew through joint Russian and Emirati investment projects and who professed to have Trump campaign contacts.

Mr. Dmitriev suggested he could meet Mr. Kushner at a coming World Chess Federation tournament in New York. He later said Mr. Putin himself would be extremely grateful if Mr. Nader could introduce Mr. Dmitriev to either Mr. Kushner or Donald Trump Jr.

Instead, Mr. Nader connected the Russian official to Mr. Gerson, Mr. Kushner’s hedge fund friend, and to Mr. Prince, Ms. DeVos’s brother, who had no formal role in the transition.

On Jan. 11, 2017, Mr. Dmitriev and Mr. Prince met at Mr. Nader’s villa at the Four Seasons Resort in the Seychelles. Mr. Prince told the Russian official that he provided “policy papers” to Mr. Bannon, a top Trump adviser, and that he would brief Mr. Bannon on their meeting. But Mr. Prince’s style seemed strikingly ad hoc.

Returning to his room after professing his hopes for a new era of cooperation, Mr. Prince learned that a Russian aircraft carrier had sailed to Libya. At a hastily organized second meeting, he told Mr. Dmitriev that Russian involvement in Libya was “off the table.” He told prosecutors that he conveyed that message “based on his experience as a former naval officer,” the report said.

Mr. Dmitriev found the trip disappointing, the report said. He told Mr. Nader he wanted to talk to someone with more authority in the Trump administration about a strategic road map for Russia and the United States.

Prosecutors tried in vain to verify what Mr. Prince and Mr. Bannon told them they had discussed about the offshore encounter with Mr. Dmitriev. But although carrier records showed that they had texted each other dozens of times before March 2017, the report stated, their phones contained no messages.