WASHINGTON – Shortly before last year’s presidential election, Donald Trump Jr. flew to France for lunch at the Hotel Ritz Paris with a Syrian peace activist who says she meets regularly with Russian officials and her French husband, who nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for a Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Donald Trump’s eldest son dined with Randa Kassis and Fabien Baussart. That night, Trump Jr. addressed a seminar organized by Baussart, who heads a foreign policy think tank, for a $50,000 fee.
“Fabien invited him, and I talked to him” about “a collaboration between the U.S. and Russia on Syria,” Kassis recalled in an interview. “No Russian was in this dinner.”
But Kassis said she flew to Moscow days after the Oct. 11, 2016, event and briefed Foreign Ministry officials in Putin’s government on the encounter. And she boasted about sending a message to the new president through his son after the election.
“I succeeded to pass Trump, through the talks with his son, the idea of how we can cooperate together to reach the agreement between Russia and the [U.S.] on Syria,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
The episode fit into a pattern of suspicious approaches to Trump’s family members or campaign aides last year by Russian officials or by Kremlin intermediaries in meetings, e-mails and other contacts that now are the focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation.
Mueller is known to be scrutinizing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that involved Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They met with a woman described as a Russian government lawyer and three of her associates, who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
People close to Trump Jr. say his visit to Paris was innocuous, one of many appearances he made to collect fees from groups eager for insights into his father. They dismiss as irrelevant the fact that his host specifically claimed she used him as a back channel to the new U.S. president while she was briefing Moscow.
Alan Futerfas, Trump Jr.’s lawyer, said the president’s son got the speaking gig through his booking agent and did not know in advance his hosts planned to pitch him on bringing Washington and Moscow together on Syria.
“Donald listened with concern and empathy, but he was in no position to comment or suggest anything beyond listening to her concerns or hopes for her country,” Futerfas said this week.
Trump Jr. didn’t know that Kassis planned to brief the Russian government about their conversation, and he did not pass along her ideas to his father or anyone else at the campaign, Futerfas said.
Kassis seemed unsure whether her appeal made an impression on Trump Jr. “It wasn’t so clear, but I talked about the risk of radical Islam. I didn’t know if he agreed 100 percent,” she said.
Baussart and Kassis describe themselves as freelance diplomats, backing causes and foreign leaders of their own choosing.
Baussart, a lawyer by training, has worked with Russian oligarchs and with senior officials from former Soviet republics, according to a former associate who has known him since the 1990s.
His Paris-based think tank, the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, has no address or phone number on its website. Under French law, it is not required to disclose who funds it. Reached by e-mail, Baussart referred questions to his wife. “My English is not so good,” he wrote.
Kassis, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Paris called the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, describes herself as “a Syrian secular opposition figure.”
She said there was nothing secret about Trump Jr.’s visit — or her relations with the Russian government.
“I go to Moscow, and always I meet with the Foreign Ministry,” she said. The Center of Political and Foreign Affairs is Baussart’s “personal think tank” and is not connected with Moscow, she added.
The Paris event was not the last contact Trump Jr. had from Kassis and Baussart, Futerfas said. Some time later, Trump Jr. received an e-mail from Baussart inviting him back, said Futerfas. Trump Jr. didn’t reply, he said.