Monday 19 February 2018

Kushner proposed Russian 'back channel' to bypass US intelligence

Red flags: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters
Red flags: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump at the Vatican. Photo: Reuters

Nick Allen in Washington

A proposed secret communications "back channel" between Donald Trump's team and the Kremlin was allegedly intended to allow sensitive discussions about strategy in Syria, it was reported last night.

Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, was said to have proposed setting up the secret line in a meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, at Trump Tower in December.

The back channel was intended to connect Michael Flynn, who was at the meeting and later became Trump's first National Security Adviser, with Russian military leaders, the Associated Press reported.

It came as the nascent Trump administration was developing its Syria policy before his inauguration.

The communications would have used Russian diplomatic facilities and bypassed the US intelligence services.

The New York Times reported that Flynn was at the centre 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.

Such a system was never established and after Rex Tillerson became Secretary of State the idea was reportedly dropped as the Trump team decided to communicate with Moscow through more official channels.

The discussion of a back channel involving Jared Kushner was first revealed by the Washington Post late last Friday.

US officials reportedly learned about it by monitoring Russian communications. Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was said to have been "taken aback" by the proposal.

In addition, the Reuters news agency reported that Kushner had 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".

The discussions reportedly focused on fighting terrorism and improving US-Russian economic relations.

"Mr Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings. He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry," said Kushner's lawyer, Jamie Gorelick.

She said Kushner could not remember any calls with Ambassador Kislyak before the election. She added: "Mr Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period."

According to Reuters, Kushner also met Sergei Nikolaevich Gorkov - the head of Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank and a trained intelligence officer appointed by Vladimir Putin - at Trump Tower in December. The bank is under US sanctions.

The White House declined to answer questions about Kushner's meeting with Ambassador Kislyak.

But HR McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, said "back-channelling" was normal.

He said: "We have back-channel communications with any number of individual countries. What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner."

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.


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