Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to President Trump and his son-in-law, suggested to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that he be allowed to use Russian diplomatic facilities to communicate securely with Moscow, The Washington Post reported on Friday.
The request reportedly came in a meeting in Trump Tower at the beginning of December that included Kushner, Kislyak, and former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It came to the attention of American officials through intercepts of Russian communications in which Kislyak relayed the request to his superiors in Moscow; the officials who spoke to the Post specified that they were not monitoring either the meeting or the communications of the Americans who were present.
"For employee-security rules, the U.S intelligence community treats visiting a foreign embassy like visiting a foreign country. Many of the most significant examples of U.S. espionage all occurred through foreign embassies," said Susan Hennessey, a Brookings fellow and a former attorney in the National Security Agency’s office of general counsel. "Like Flynn, there's the possibility that Kushner put himself in a position to be compromised, because the Russians knew he tried to set up a secret channel."
The report in the Post could not immediately be independently confirmed and goes beyond reporting in other outlets. It stems from an anonymous letter the paper received in mid-December. Intelligence officials, the paper said, subsequently confirmed Kushner’s desire to establish a secret channel so that the Trump team could conduct politically sensitive communications.
National-security officials expressed surprise at Kushner’s reported move, which would circumvent the federal government’s established methods for communicating with foreign powers, including Russia.
"Why would Kushner want a secret channel? What information would the Trump team want to make sure is hidden from U.S. intelligence?" asked Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "The idea of using Russian facilities to skirt Russian surveillance in the U.S. would either be a serious attempt to hide something or the actions of a young amateur."
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now runs the Soufan Group security firm, echoed that assessment.
“I'm trying to think of one really good reason for them to do something like this, and I seriously can't come up with any,” said Soufan of Kushner’s attempt to use Russian facilities to correspond with the Kremlin. "It indicates a lack of experience, at the least.”
In April, the New York Times reported that Kushner failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials. Kushner’s attorney Jamie Gorelick, a former Clinton-era Justice Department official with extensive national security experience, said the omission was an error and that the questionnaire had been submitted “prematurely.”
Shortly after the Post’s story was published on Friday, Reuters reported Kushner also had two previously unknown phone calls with Kislyak. One of the calls reportedly took place in April as Trump neared the end of the Republican primary season; the other occurred sometime in November. The report did not specify whether the second call took place before or after the November 8 election, nor did it indicate whether Kushner or Kislyak initiated the calls.
Kushner returned to Washington this week part way through Trump’s first foreign trip, although White House officials insisted his early departure had been planned. He was greeted by reports from multiple outlets, including NBC News and the Post, that he is now a focus of the FBI’s investigation into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It’s part of a broadening set of inquiries facing Trump. Separately on Friday, the Post reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee had asked the Trump campaign to preserve and produce all documents, emails, and phone records dating back to its inception in June of 2015.
The Trump inner circle’s clandestine communications with Kislyak before the inauguration have dogged the administration for months. The president fired Flynn in February after multiple news outlets reported he had lied to White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador in December. Those conversations took place on the same day the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russian officials for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
In March, the Post also reported Attorney General Jeff Sessions had omitted two meetings he had with Kislyak in 2016 from his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation process. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation the following day. Oversight of the probe fell first to Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente and then to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department’s second-in-command. Last week, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to take charge of the sprawling investigation in the wake of Trump’s ouster of FBI Director James Comey.
The White House first publicly revealed Kislyak’s December meeting with Kushner and Flynn at Trump Tower shortly after Sessions’ recusal. But the Post’s report is the first to describe what they discussed at that time.
"Both Flynn and Kushner are extremely naive if they think a covert communications channel can be set up at Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. without the FBI finding out," said David Gomez, a former FBI agent and a fellow at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
The potential security implications of Kushner’s reported proposal, experts said, are significant.
"It is inconceivable that a White House official who had done this, not at the president's direction, would continue to work there," said Hennessey. "What happens to Kushner now will be incredibly revealing about the extent to which political accountability and the rule of law continue to apply in the White House."
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