Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appeared on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday, and gave this assessment of Kushner’s reported outreach to Russia:
“It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable. Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organizations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us is a good thing…. [I]t’s not a bad thing to have multiple communication lines to any government.”
Kelly added on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he believes “any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not so good friends, is a smart thing to do.”
White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster embraced a similar tack.
McMaster, a decorated three-star Army general, was asked whether he would be concerned if an official on his National Security Council staff or elsewhere in the Trump administration sought a back-channel communications system with the Russian embassy or the Kremlin in Moscow.
“No,” McMaster said. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” He continued, “No, I would not be concerned about it.”
Let’s take a step back, because to take administration officials’ rhetoric at face value is to ignore the seriousness of the allegations and every relevant detail that’s already emerged.
The Washington Post first reported on Friday night that Kushner, Michael Flynn, and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak had a private meeting in early December – during the Trump presidential transition process – at Trump Tower in New York. At the meeting, Kushner reportedly “discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.”
According to the Post’s report, Kislyak shared Kushner’s offer with his superiors in Russia, and those communications were intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials.
Ultimately, the arrangement did not come to fruition, in part because Russia wasn’t comfortable using its own diplomatic facilities for these covert conversations.
For Republicans eager to defend Team Trump, “backchannel” communications between the United States and other countries – friend and foe alike – have been common for many years, so the report on Kushner need not be seen as necessarily controversial. That’s bonkers. Backchannel communications involve the use of diplomatic intermediaries to pursue U.S. foreign policy, not an American transition team offering to use a foreign adversary’s facilities to host secret discussions away from U.S. detection.
No one has been able to explain, even on a theoretical level, why Team Trump would seek a secret communications avenue with Moscow that relevant U.S. agencies couldn’t monitor.
To see this as “normal” is ridiculous. On Friday’s show, Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, was asked where something like this falls “on a scale of ‘always’ to ‘never.’” McFaul responded, “Never. I’ve never heard of anybody asking to come to our embassy from Russia to communicate with people back here in the United States, or vice versa.”
Kushner, of course, was required to disclose this discussion when he sought his security clearance. As it turns out, he initially failed to do so – just as he also failed to disclose the meeting he had around this time with the head of a Russian bank, which has direct ties to Vladimir Putin and Russian spy services.
Also note, all of this unfolded before Trump’s inauguration – not long after the incoming Republican administration was briefed on Russia’s attack on the United States election – raising questions about why Team Trump felt the need to rush.
Politico added over the weekend that Kushner’s alleged discussions “would have been viewed as not only highly improper but also possibly even illegal, according to former national security officials…. Many said that while presidents often set up back-channel communications with various countries, it’s neither wise nor normal for a president-elect to set up such continuing contact before the inauguration, despite likely pressure from foreign countries. Also, the idea of using the equipment of a foreign country, especially an adversary such as Russia, would be acutely alarming.”
Making matters slightly worse, Reuters also reported late Friday that, according to seven current and former U.S. officials, Kushner had “at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.”
John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, both of whom have decorated careers in public service, need to take a moment to realize that they’re not just pushing laughable talking points; they’re also sticking their necks out for a White House team that appears to have taken some highly provocative risks, some of which may not have been legal.
Trump has an unfortunate habit of tarnishing the reputations of those around him. Those trying to defend him and his family members against Russia scandal allegations might want to keep this history in mind.