Like most Americans, President Donald Trump was likely looking forward to a quiet Memorial Day weekend after a lengthy nine-day trip abroad. But when the president returns to the nation’s capital on Saturday, he’ll be greeted by a White House buckling under a landslide of late-breaking stories on Trump’s least-favorite topic: the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia.
A quartet of stories, published on Friday during what is becoming known as the “Trump scandal witching hour,” each touched on a facet of the ongoing investigation into the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the outcome of last year’s U.S. presidential election. Two, concerning White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, allege that one of the president’s closest confidantes engaged in previously undisclosed communications with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, including an alleged attempt to set up a secret communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin.
Kushner’s proposed backchannel, first reported by The Washington Post, would have protected discussions between the transition team and the Russian government from being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies—and, since they were to have been conducted using Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S., would have almost certainly exposed those discussions to Russian intelligence agencies.
Kislyak reportedly told superiors in Moscow that Kushner had pitched the clandestine communications channel during a meeting at Trump Tower in early December. Kushner, who NBC News reported earlier this week had come under scrutiny in the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion with the Kremlin, also allegedly discussed arranging meetings between a Trump representative and a “Russian contact” in a third, unidentified country.
Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI special agent, questioned why Kushner’s security clearance wouldn’t have been held up by the reported conversations with Kislyak.
“This move by Kushner must have been sanctioned by Trump and known to top officials and family members,” said Watts, a Daily Beast contributor. “This might explain why Trump is always so concerned about the Russia investigation and why Kushner allegedly pushed trump to fire Comey.”
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin appeared to be the first lawmaker to react to the Post report, writing on Twitter: “Been trying to think of a legitimate reason why a Trump official would want a secret line to Putin that FBI/NSA couldn’t monitor. I can’t.”
Later on Friday night, Reuters, citing seven current and former U.S. officials, reported that Kushner had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with Kislyak during and after the presidential election, two of which occurred between April and November of last year. None of those contacts with Kislyak were disclosed in Kushner’s application for top-secret security clearance before his father-in-law’s inauguration in January.
Jamie Gorelick, Kushner’s attorney, stated that Kushner “participated in thousands of calls in this time period,” and “has no recollection of the calls as described.”
“We have asked [Reuters] for the dates of such alleged calls so we may look into it and respond,” Gorelick continued, “but we have not received such information.”
Neither Kushner nor the White House responded to the Washington Post report about the proposed Kremlin communications backchannel.
“If he was a regular employee with a top-secret clearance, his clearance would’ve been stripped from him months ago,” Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst, told The Daily Beast.
Former national security officials and experts all reacted with shock to the Kushner revelations.
“The idea of a soon-to-be White House official wanting to set up a secret communication channel with the Russian government, at a Russian government facility, on a Russian communication system, defies logic,” national security attorney Bradley Moss told The Daily Beast. “What was so urgent and so immediate that not only Kushner wanted to have the conversation before they came to the White House, but he wanted it on Russia government channels?”
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Kushner’s alleged communications with Kislyak amount to “subverting the United States government to have conversations with an adversary.”
The Post also reported late Friday that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, sent a letter to the Trump campaign requesting all documents and communications—including emails and phone records—dating back to the start of the campaign in 2015.
Earlier this week, the senators on the panel voted unanimously to give “blanket authority” to Republican Chairman Richard Burr and Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner to issue subpoenas as they see necessary. They have already exercised that authority in the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned from his post after serving for a mere 24 days following the revelation that he had spoken to Kislyak about U.S. sanctions against Russia before Trump took office. Flynn has been accused of failing to disclose payments from the Russian and Turkish governments on his security clearance application, known as SF-86.
When reached late Friday for comment, a spokeswoman for Warner declined to confirm the request, writing only: “Nope. Sorry.” A spokeswoman for Burr did not return a request for comment.
Bakos said these leaks and others have put more pressure on Robert Mueller, the special counsel tasked with overseeing the Justice Department’s probe into Russian interference in the presidential election.
“Any time something is in the public forum, it’s going to be a little bit difficult for him because it immediately becomes politicized,” Bakos said. “But as a citizen, I want to know what is happening, especially if it’s something that is not in favor of the United States government.”
In addition to Flynn and more than a year’s worth of communications and documents, the Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly also been pitched the under-oath testimony of a Russian oligarch who was once close with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. On Friday night, The New York Times reported that Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate and a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has offered to testify before Congress—in exchange for full immunity.
Deripaska and Manafort did business together in 2007, when the future Trump campaign chair worked as a campaign consultant for Kremlin-backed politicians in Ukraine. Both were partners in a fund to buy Ukrainian telecommunications assets, but the relationship spiraled into acrimony and legal disputes in the Cayman Islands.
The Times, citing congressional officials, say that lawmakers are not interested in Deripaska’s deal.
The maelstrom of news relating to Trump officials, associates, and now family members becoming entangled with Russian government officials—which President Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary, has continued to dismiss as “fake news”—is not, according to intelligence experts, the result of a series of unfortunate events.
“This is not an innocent mistake,” Naveed Jamali, a former FBI double agent, told The Daily Beast. “There is a pattern emerging of deception. And if someone is attempting to deceive, as a counterintelligence or security officer it’s a major red flag, and one has to wonder why the subject is trying to hide this stuff. Or in either case, this no longer supports that this was an innocent act or mistake.”