Trump’s Team Intent on Setting Up Back Channel Communications With Russia

It is worth noting that at least three members of the Trump administration have now lied (or failed to disclose) meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner.

We don’t know what Sessions discussed with Kislyak during his meetings with the ambassador. But I’ll refer you to Martin Longman’s excellent documentation of the events that surrounded the private meeting between the two in September.

Flynn’s lies about his meetings with the ambassador in late December 2016 led to him being fired as Trump’s National Security Advisor after they were made public. But a couple of weeks ago we learned this:

Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy…

As I pointed out at the time, there was also a clandestine meeting in January between Erik Prince, who had been consulting with the Trump transition team, and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin “as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”

In March, the White House confirmed that Jared Kushner—along with Michael Flynn—met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in early December. Last Friday, Reuters reported this:

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Those contacts included two phone calls between April and November last year, two of the sources said.

On the same day, the Washington Post reported that, during the meeting at Trump Tower in December, Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak had discussed 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.”

What we can learn by putting these pieces of the puzzle together is that several members of the Trump team were intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the Trump administration and Russia that would bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, with Kushner going so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Flynn discussed it with Kislyak immediately following the election, Flynn and Kushner followed up on that in early December, and Prince was dispatched to a clandestine meeting to talk about it in January.

Over the weekend, with the focus on Kushner, the public line from the White House was not to deny his role in this, but to suggest that it was “normal and acceptable,” which is absurd. The fact that Prince was still working on it in January indicates that it wasn’t simply meant as a means to communicate during the transition, but was a way to bypass our national security apparatus during his presidency, at a time when the Trump campaign was under investigation for colluding with the Russians to influence the U.S. election.

While exploring how worried Kushner should be about these revelations, Ryan Lizza reminds us of his role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey. He points to reports that indicated Kushner “had urged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey,” as well as the fact that when Rosenstein appointed a special prosecutor, more than a dozen aids met with the president to discuss how to respond.

“Most of those gathered recommended that the president adopt a conciliatory stance and release a statement accepting Mr. Rosenstein’s decision and embracing a swift investigation that would clear the cloud of suspicion hovering over the West Wing,” the paper said. But there was one dissenter: Kushner, who was “urging the president to counterattack.”

This reporting makes it clear that it wasn’t just Trump who had a conflict of interest when deciding on whether to fire Comey…less has been said about Kushner’s conflict. Should Kushner, who we now know is under some level of scrutiny by the F.B.I., be advising his father-in-law to fire the F.B.I. director and “counterattack” the special counsel?

As has so often been the case with the revelations coming from the Trump/Russia probe, this is not the behavior of someone who was engaging in negotiations that were “normal and acceptable.” We don’t yet know why members of the Trump team were so intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the administration and Russia. We also don’t know whether or not they were ultimately successful in doing so. What we do know is that they were working on this since shortly after the election and that they have repeatedly lied about it while attempting to obstruct the investigation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.