Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said he did not collude with the Kremlin to influence the U.S. presidential election and denied any improper contacts with Russian officials in his first extensive response to the controversy now plaguing the White House.

“All of my actions were proper and occurred in the normal course of events of a very unique campaign,” Mr. Kushner said in brief remarks to reporters on Monday. Mr. Trump had “a better message and ran a smarter campaign and that is why he won,” Mr. Kushner continued. “Suggesting otherwise ridicules those who voted for him.”

By stating that his behaviour was innocuous and repudiating the suggestion that he was involved in any kind of conspiracy, Mr. Kushner has, in effect, issued a challenge to investigators. Now, their work in the weeks and months ahead will either confirm or disprove his version of events.

In a cautiously worded opening statement before facing questions from congressional investigators, Mr. Kushner described his meetings with the former Russian ambassador and a Russian banker connected to the Kremlin as part of an effort to make a “fresh start” in relations with Moscow. His initial failure to report those meetings on a security clearance form was inadvertent, he said.

Mr. Kushner answered questions for two hours behind closed doors on Monday in a continuing congressional probe into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential election.

In his statement, Mr. Kushner portrayed himself as a hard-working political neophyte grappling with a torrent of daily e-mails and numerous requests for meetings.

In particular, Mr. Kushner took pains to distance himself from a meeting that took place at Trump Tower in June, 2016. The encounter was described in e-mails sent to Mr. Kushner by Donald Trump Jr., the President’s eldest son, as a chance to receive damaging information on Hillary Clinton courtesy of the Russian government.

Mr. Kushner told investigators he did not read the chain of e-mails describing the meeting’s purpose, only the message regarding its timing. He arrived a few minutes late, he said, and the topic under discussion was Russian adoptions. Mr. Kushner said he determined his time was being wasted and he e-mailed his assistant asking her to call him on his cellphone in order to have a pretext to leave.

Mr. Kushner, who is married to Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, is one of the President’s closest advisers, but almost never speaks in public. His carefully vetted pronouncements on Monday represent a marked contrast to the approaches taken by both Mr. Trump and Mr. Trump Jr. Both the President and his son have embraced a freewheeling response to the Russia investigation, firing back at critics on Twitter and elsewhere in ways that make lawyers blanch.

Mr. Kushner, however, is clearly “working very closely with his legal team,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Thompson Coburn who represents clients accused of white-collar crimes. Mr. Kushner’s statement presented a minimum of facts in the best possible light and went out of its way to demonstrate that he did not know the purpose of the June, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower, Mr. Mariotti said. That means Mr. Kushner’s lawyers likely view the meeting as problematic, he added.

Mr. Kushner underscored that he had no continuing relationship with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, quoting an e-mail in which he appeared to forget the ambassador’s name. He stressed that he was not aware of any dialogue between the Trump campaign and Russian officials prior to the election.

It is unclear what congressional investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Mr. Kushner in Monday’s closed-door hearing.

Mr. Kushner will face further questioning on Tuesday when it is the turn of investigators from the House Intelligence Committee to interrogate him, once again behind closed doors.

One area reportedly under scrutiny by both House and Senate investigators is whether Russian operatives received any help in targeting voters in crucial jurisdictions with negative and fake information about Ms. Clinton. Mr. Kushner oversaw the campaign’s digital operation.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the most senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said earlier this month that he wants to know whether Russia’s “fake or damaging news stories” were “co-ordinated in any way … with the [Trump] campaign.”

In his statement, Mr. Kushner described his meetings with the Russian ambassador and a Russian banker during the presidential transition as interactions that had no ulterior or improper motives. He confirmed that on Dec. 1, he met with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, together with Michael Flynn, who would become Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. At one point, Mr. Kushner asked if there was a communications channel at the Russian embassy that could be used for a secure exchange of information between Moscow and the transition. Mr. Kislyak said that would not be possible so the parties agreed to wait until after the inauguration, Mr. Kushner said.

Later, Mr. Kislyak urged Mr. Kushner to meet Sergey Gorkov, the chief executive of a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions, describing Mr. Gorkov as a person with a direct line to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also innocuous in Mr. Kushner’s retelling was the initial omission of any foreign contacts on his security clearance form. Mr. Kushner said that in the chaotic week prior to the inauguration, a miscommunication led his assistant in Washington to submit a “rough draft” of the form to the government. The next day, Mr. Kushner submitted a supplement saying he had numerous contacts with foreign officials. He provided a list of those contacts “in normal course,” he said.

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jul. 24, 2017 6:44AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 24, 2017 11:14PM EDT