(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and now top White House adviser Jared Kushner reportedly proposed setting up a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting with a leading Russian diplomat.
During the meeting at Trump Tower in New York City, Kushner proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities for the discussions, apparently to make them more difficult to monitor, according to The Washington Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials who were briefed on intelligence reports on intercepted Russian communications.
The Russian envoy, Sergey Kislyak, ambassador to the United States, told his superiors that he was “taken aback” by Kushner’s suggestion, the newspaper said. The New York Times reported that the back channel was intended as a way to discuss Syria and other policy issues, but never was set up.
The disclosures put White House advisers on the defensive Saturday, as Trump wrapped up his first foreign trip as president, and led lawyers for Kushner to say he is willing to talk with federal and congressional investigators about his foreign contacts and his work on the Trump campaign.
Meeting with reporters in Sicily, two chief Trump advisers refused to address the contents of Kushner’s December meeting with the Russian diplomat. But they did not dismiss the idea that the administration would go outside normal U.S. government and diplomatic channels for communications with other countries.
Speaking generally, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said “we have back channel communications with a number of countries.” He added: “It allows you to communicate in a discreet manner.”
In response to repeated questions from reporters, Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn said, “We’re not “We’re not going to comment on Jared. We’re just not going to comment.”
Kushner was a trusted Trump adviser last year, overseeing the campaign’s digital strategy, and remains an influential confidant within the White House as does his wife, Ivanka Trump.
Federal investigators and several congressional committees are looking into any connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, including allegations that there may have been collaboration to help Trump and harm his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Those inquiries now include scrutiny of Kushner, according to The Post.
The White House has previously confirmed that Kushner met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in December. One White House official at the time characterized it as a brief courtesy meeting and confirmed that Michael Flynn, Trump’s ousted national security adviser, was in the room.
Flynn was fired in February after officials said he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call. Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, told Congress this month that that deception left Flynn vulnerable to being blackmailed by the Russians. Flynn remains under federal investigation in Virginia over his foreign business ties and was interviewed by the FBI in January about his contacts with Kislyak.
Obama administration officials told The Associated Press this past week that the frequency of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak raised enough red flags that aides discussed the possibility Trump was trying to establish a one-to-one line of communication — a back channel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Times reported that Flynn was at the center of the idea. Citing three people with knowledge of Kushner’s discussion with Kislyak, the newspaper said that Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was supposed to communicate directly with a senior Russian military official as part of the plan to discuss the war in Syria and other issues.
In addition, Reuters reported that Kushner had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with Kislyak last year, including two phone calls between April and November. Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, told Reuters that Kushner “has no recollection of the calls as described.”
Defense attorneys and former FBI agents say that one likely area of interest for investigators would be Kushner’s own meetings with Russians, given that such encounters with a variety of Trump associates are at the root of the sprawling probe, now overseen by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Regarding Kushner, former FBI agent Jim Treacy said Friday: “If there is an investigation on anybody, would other folks around that person be of interest to the FBI as far as being interviewed? The answer to that is a big yes.” If the FBI wants to speak with someone, it’s not necessarily an indication of involvement or complicity, said Treacy, who did two tours in Moscow as the FBI’s legal attache.
“Really, being spoken to, does not confer a target status on the individual,” he said.
Investigators are also interested in a meeting Kushner had with the Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, according to reports from The Post and NBC News.
“Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings,” Gorelick said in a statement Thursday. “He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”
Another potential line of inquiry could concern Kushner’s failure to disclose some of his contacts with Russian government officials when he was filling out his application for a security clearance. The omissions were described as an “administrative error” by Gorelick, who said additional information about his meetings were provided to the FBI the day after he submitted his incomplete clearance application.
When applying for a security clearance, applicants are asked to disclose details about their interactions with foreigners, including the names of all the foreign government officials the applicant has had contact with over the past seven years. In some cases, people can lose their security clearances and jobs for not properly disclosing foreign contacts. Some Democrats have called on Kushner to be stripped of his security clearance and have asked the FBI to review whether Kushner complied with the law.