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Thursday, March 02, 2017

Don Jr's strange little dinner

by digby

I missed this story:
Three weeks before Election Day, Donald Trump Jr. left the campaign trail and the country to speak at a private dinner in Paris organized by an obscure pro-Russia group that promotes Kremlin foreign policy initiatives and has since nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A key organizer of the event later told reporters she flew to Moscow to brief a senior Russian official about the session.

The White House referred question about the President’s son to the Trump Organization. A spokeswoman for Trump business did not respond to questions from ABC News about why Trump, junior flew to France for the session during a critical phase of the Presidential campaign or who arranged for him to attend, whether he was paid, what was discussed, and if anyone vetted the group before he went.

The group sponsoring the session, the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), was founded by a wealthy French businessman and his partner, who are reported to have made major investments in Russia.

“They are openly linked with the Russians,” said Renaud Girard, a French opinion writer who served as moderator of the session Trump attended. “They don’t hide it at all.”

Thirty people joined the Trump family scion for the private Oct. 11 gathering at the Ritz Hotel, according to Girard.

The younger Trump’s appearance briefly made news after the event, including in a Wall Street Journal report that quoted one of the hosts, Randa Kassis. Kassis told the newspaper she traveled to Moscow shortly after the U.S. election and discussed details of the Trump dinner with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy head of Russia’s foreign ministry.

Congressional sources told ABC News Trump Junior’s jaunt to Paris remains one of a number of episodes – some confirmed and others unproven – that have fueled suspicions about the possibility that there was communication between the Trump team and the Russian government during the closing months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

In France and in Washington diplomatic circles, those familiar with the French think tank circuit told ABC News they had never heard of the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), which organized the dinner. The organization has no fixed address and neither of the founders, Fabian Baussart and Kassis, responded to calls and emails seeking an interview.

“I have been dealing with French think tanks and research institutes for 35 years and I’ve never heard of it,” said Daniel S. Hamilton, the executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Advanced International Studies. “That tells you something.”

Marie Mendras, a political scientist in the field of Russian and post-Soviet studies at the Paris School of International Affairs, said she was reluctant to weigh in. “I can only say that Fabien Baussart is known in France for his close Kremlin and Russian business connections,” she said in an email exchange.

No one involved with CPFA would respond to phone calls or questions. And unlike in the U.S., France does not require non profit organizations to make information about their financing publicly available. Hamilton was one of several experts who noted that the Russian government is believed to have spent considerable money to fuel the European think tank and opinion circuit, though they were all equally explicit to note that they did not know if there was any connection between those Russian activities and CPFA.

“Money plays a big role here through front organizations,” he said. “But it’s hard to ever know.”

Published reports in French newspapers and intelligence journals indicate that both Baussart and Kassis have frequently touted their Russian ties. News reports in France described Baussart as “a former lobbyist for Russian oligarchs in France.” A news service called Intelligence Online reported that Baussart organized “efforts to lobby the French authorities and, in particular, the French intelligence services.”

Kassis is described in French news reports as a Syrian-born activist who has sought Russian support for her position on Syria. She has posted photos online showing her in meetings with senior Kremlin officials. Just this week, a report by the English-language Russian web site Sputinik News said Kassis was in Geneva and told reporters she was meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.

Last September, the CPFA attempted to raise its profile by organizing what it described as “peace talks” between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics with a long-simmering, frozen conflict born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those countries signed a truce in 1994, according to the BBC, but sporadic fighting has persisted.

The organization invited former U.S. diplomat James Rubin, at the time a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, and a British politician and former diplomat who served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown to help facilitate the talks. But the weekend was canceled. Rubin instead flew to France and joined the group for one of their salon-style dinners. Rubin declined comment.

Ashdown told ABC News he initially accepted the invitation, but then became suspicious of the organizers and backed out.

“It was clearly an attempt to instrumentalise me for their own very dubious purposes. I told them I wasn’t born yesterday and that the Serbs used to try that and didn’t succeed, and they were probably cleverer,” Ashdown said in an email. “Result: the engagement was cancelled along with the “peace talks.”

Others who have attended the dinners, Girard said, are former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the organization website also shows a visit from the former head of British intelligence, Richard Dearlove. Neither replied to emails seeking comment.

One dignitary who spoke to the group told ABC News he was hired through a speaker’s bureau and was paid well in excess of the typical fee – an amount in the tens of thousands of dollars. He asked not to be quoted by name because he did not wish to stoke any ill will with Kassis and Baussart.

Girard said that on the evening Trump Jr. attended, the guests included ambassadors to France, lawyers, bankers and business executives. Conversation at the dinner was cordial and focused on a range of international affairs. Girard said the gathering occurred at a time when most of the media had dismissed Trump’s chances of winning the American election as highly unlikely. “The one thing that amazed me was that he was confident that his father would win,” Girard said.

This is probably nothing. But it does speak to the fact that the Trump campaign was insanely obtuse about the appearance of collusion with the Russians during the campaign. This was three weeks before the election. Sessions met with the Russian ambassador a month before the election. Flynn called the Russian ambassador during the transition on the day the Obama administration laid out sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election. Throughout this period, everyone knew the Russian government was implicated in the hacking of the presidential campaign and the suspicion was that it was on behalf of Donald Trump.

Maybe this is all innocent of nefarious intent. But if that's the case, what they did is so stupid that they have disqualified themselves from any position of responsibility.