The Trump-related scandal of the day is news that Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities. Reportedly, this possibility — proposed by Kushner — was discussed at the very beginning of December 2016. Nothing came of it.
There is, of course, nothing unusual about wanting a back channel through which to communicate with a foreign government. As Gen. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, says, we have back channel communications with a number of countries” in order to “communicate in a discreet manner.” Thus, McMaster is “not concerned.”
What seems unique about the arrangement Kushner apparently contemplated (I’ve seen no denial of the Post’s report and McMaster’s comments seem to confirm it) is that this back channel apparently was intended to conceal communications with Russia from the U.S. government. Although I don’t think there’s anything unlawful about such a move, it does raise the question of why Kushner didn’t want the Obama administration and our intelligence agencies to know what Team Trump was communicating to the Russians.
The obvious answer is that Kushner feared the Obama administration and/or enemies of Trump in the intelligence community would use the back channel communications against Trump in some way. They might leak the communications to embarrass Trump or they might use the information obtained to thwart Trump’s policy regarding Russia.
This fear does not imply guilt. The Trump transition team might simply have wanted to begin laying the groundwork for some sort of U.S.-Russia initiative, perhaps against ISIS. It might have feared that the Obama administration or, after it ended, enemies in the intel community would undermine these efforts. Such fears would be reasonable, as the Obama administration’s behavior and the non-stop leaking of classified information in recent months has demonstrated.
I think this is the most likely reason why Kushner considered a secret channel. However, there are much less innocent explanations one can embrace, if one is so inclined. Improper financial dealing and/or hiding evidence of “collusion” are among them.
At this time, though, such explanations are pure conjecture. They are grist for the conspiracy mill, but not evidence of a conspiracy or of wrongdoing.
The anti-Trump forces may have a point, though, when they accuse Kushner of gross naivety, or even stupidity. Establishing a back channel at a Russian diplomatic facility would have entailed visiting the facility. A former senior intelligence official points out that the FBI would know that a Trump transition official was going in and out of the embassy, which would cause “a great deal” of concern.
The same former official asked: “How would [Kushner] trust that the Russians wouldn’t leak [communications] on their side?” He concludes that the back channel idea “seems extremely naive or absolutely crazy.” This sentiment is echoed in comments by other intelligence agency veterans, including Michael Hayden. Most, if not all of them, are hostile to President Trump, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong on this point.
Kushner’s proposal seems extremely naive, if not crazy, for another reason. By early December, “collusion” and Russian interference had become the primary excuse for Hillary Clinton’s defeat and the main club Trump’s enemies were beating him with. Kushner should have realized that the chances of his back channel coming to light were significant and that, once it did, this would feed the anti-Trump narrative.
Thus, the report of the proposed back channel may raise legitimate concerns about Kusnher’s fitness for the outsized role he’s playing in the Trump administration. It does not, however, support claims of collusion and/or financial chicanery on the part of Kushner, other members of the Trump team, or the president himself.