"This is way beyond a private server": Four questions on Kushner's "back channel" to Russia

Intel pros tell Business Insider they can’t believe it. Not the fact that Kushner and Team Trump would want a “back channel” to Moscow; that happens all the time when governments (in this case a government-in-waiting) want to speak frankly about potential policy shifts without public pressure. What they can’t believe is that Kushner allegedly wanted to do it using the Russians’ own secure communication apparatus. The only reason to do that would be to hide the conversation from U.S. intelligence, which is listening in on all of Russia’s less secure lines.

Why would Kushner be worried about the feds knowing what he was saying to the Kremlin?

“This is off the map,” Michael Hayden, who served as the director of the NSA and the CIA, told CNN on Saturday. “I know of no other experience like this in our history, and certainly not within my life experience.”

“This was probably as off-putting to Kislyak as it is for you and me,” Hayden added. “What manner of ignorance, hubris, suspicion, and contempt [for the previous administration] would you have to have to think doing this with the Russian ambassador would be a good or appropriate idea?”…

“If you are in a position of public trust, and you talk to, meet, or collude with a foreign power” while trying to subvert normal state channels, “you are, in the eyes of the FBI and CIA, a traitor,” said Glenn Carle, a former top counterterrorism official at the CIA for more than two decades. “That is what I spent my life getting foreigners to do with me, for the US government.”

Another former CIA analyst made the same point: If he’d tried to do an end-around federal surveillance in talking to Russia, he’d have been booked for espionage. “This is way beyond a private server,” said a former FBI counterintelligence specialist to BI. “This is doing US government diplomatic business over a foreign government’s communication system. It’s not an off-the-record conversation. It’s a conversation recorded by the opposing party.”

That’s question one, the big one — why did Kushner want to use Russian diplomats’ secure line to Moscow instead of some official means of communication monitored by the U.S. government? And why did he reportedly conceal the extent of his contact with Russian officials? If all of this is no big deal, it’s odd that Jared seems to have been highly allergic to the public finding out about any of it. Imagine the havoc it would have wreaked if he were spotted walking into a Russian diplomatic building during the transition to use their red line to Putin. The whole reason Flynn was dumped, per Sally Yates, was that the Russians could have blackmailed him by using their own recording of him talking sanctions with Kislyak against him. Now here’s Jared wanting to use the Russians’ own line to discuss sensitive matters. What could go wrong?

Question two: Why the rush? If, as the NYT’s sources maintain, this was really about discussing cooperation on Syria, why couldn’t Kushner and Mike Flynn have waited until after the inauguration and had these chats with Putin in an above-board way? It’s easy to understand why Team Trump wouldn’t want highly visible negotiations with Moscow: They were (and still are) under suspicion for possibly colluding with Russia during the campaign. That explains why they’d want a “back channel.” It doesn’t explain why they’d insist on one in December or early January instead of waiting until January 20th.

Three: What was Trump’s role? Did he put Mike Flynn and Kushner up to talking with the Russians or did they act on their own initiative? Was it in fact Jared’s dopey idea to open a “back channel” using Russia’s secure communications line or was that Trump’s? Also, if Trump was willing to lean on Comey to go easy on Flynn, did he also lean on Comey to go easy on Kushner once he found out that the FBI was interested in talking to him? “Go easy on my now-fired NSA” is one thing. “Go easy on my still-hired son-in-law” stinks, especially given the nepotism concerns about Jared’s and Ivanka’s influence in the White House.

Four: Who leaked this to the Washington Post? The paper claims it first heard about the meeting at which Kushner and Kislyak discussed a secret back-channel via an “anonymous letter” it received in mid-December. There are two groups of people who might have known what Kushner was up to at the time. (Well, three if you include the Russians, but why would they have ratted Kushner out instead of holding onto potential blackmail material?) One is the Trump transition team itself, which was led for a time by Kushner frenemy Chris Christie. Christie had already been purged by mid-November, though; the Kushner-Kislyak meeting didn’t happen until early December. Another possibility is fellow frenemy Steve Bannon or one of his allies. The NYT reported last month, long before the FBI’s interest in Kushner became public knowledge, that “Mr. Bannon has told confidants that he believes Mr. Kushner’s contact with Russians, and his expected testimony before Congress on the subject, will become a major distraction for the White House.” Bannon knew something about Kushner and Russia. Did his team send the letter to the Post?

Or was it someone in the Obama administration that sent the letter? Remember, according to the Post, the way the feds supposedly found out that Kushner wanted a secret line to Russia was because Kislyak mentioned it to Moscow and U.S. intelligence intercepted that transmission. The names of U.S. citizens that come up in foreign surveillance are, of course, redacted by the NSA — unless a higher-up in the U.S. government wants them unmasked. Which, per Reuters, is exactly what happened to Kushner in Mike Flynn’s communications with the Russians:

FBI scrutiny of Kushner began when intelligence reports of Flynn’s contacts with Russians included mentions of U.S. citizens, whose names were redacted because of U.S. privacy laws. This prompted investigators to ask U.S. intelligence agencies to reveal the names of the Americans, the current U.S. law enforcement official said.

Kushner’s was one of the names that was revealed, the official said, prompting a closer look at the president’s son-in-law’s dealings with Kislyak and other Russians.

If Kushner’s name was unmasked in Flynn’s calls, it’s a cinch that it was unmasked when Kislyak was caught telling his bosses that a certain high-ranking American in the incoming administration wanted to use Russia’s own secure line to chat with them. No wonder Susan Rice was curious. Once Obama natsec officials found out about Kushner’s proposal, one of them may have decided to go to the Post with it — but because it would have been explosive for the outgoing administration to be seen as trying to take down the incoming president’s son-in-law with a damaging leak, maybe the leaker wanted his/her fingerprints off of it entirely. Hence the anonymous letter instead of a more easily traceable phone call or email.

In the end, though, everything comes back to question one. Why did Kushner try to hide his “back channel” to Moscow from U.S. intelligence? There are two theories kicking around, one suggesting corruption and the other pointing to dunderheadedness. The corruption theory holds that Kushner didn’t really want to discuss Syria with Russia, that that’s just a cover story fed to the Times last night to make this seem less suspicious. What he wanted to talk about was money. More from Reuters:

FBI investigators are examining whether Russians suggested to Kushner or other Trump aides that relaxing economic sanctions would allow Russian banks to offer financing to people with ties to Trump, said the current U.S. law enforcement official.

The head of Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank, Sergei Nikolaevich Gorkov, a trained intelligence officer whom Putin appointed, met Kushner at Trump Tower in December. The bank is under U.S. sanctions and was implicated in a 2015 espionage case in which one of its New York executives pleaded guilty to spying and was jailed.

As chance would have it, Kushner met with Gorkov just a few days after the “secret channel” meeting with Kislyak. Last week WaPo reported that a certain unnamed senior White House advisor, widely assumed to be Kushner, had become a “significant person of interest” in the Russiagate probe and that “the investigative work now being done by the FBI also includes determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president.” Coincidentally, notes David Frum, Kushner’s family faced a huge hike in interest in December owed on debt used to acquire a property on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Hmmmm.

The dunderheadedness theory is more straightforward. Kushner, like his father-in-law, is a total newbie to government and not nearly as bright as he thinks he is. The administration wanted a splashy diplomatic reset with Russia replete with concessions from Moscow on Syria as soon as Trump took office, so they started working on it during the transition. And because they were suspicious of being monitored by Obama’s intelligence team and subjected to damaging leaks — with good reason! — they tried to do things “off the books” as much as possible, even if that meant, um, asking Russian diplomats if they could use their own secure line to Moscow to negotiate. They’re not on the take. They’re just morons who were scrambling blindly for an early foreign policy win.

Read this long but worthwhile Twitter thread from Matt Welch of Reason magazine elaborating on the same idea. Not only was Kushner an amateur who may not have realized why using Russian’s diplomatic facilities was a no-no, there were so few professional natsec people who supported Trump that there was no one around on the transition team who could have set him straight. The resident pro was Flynn, who was himself distrusted as a loose cannon by many other intelligence specialists. A detail in yesterday’s NYT piece also supports the idea that the “secret channel,” however inept in design, was actually about Russia policy, not about corruption: Supposedly the idea was dropped once Rex Tillerson, a Russia dove, was named Secretary of State. The suggestion is that if a Russia hawk like Mitt Romney had been given the job, Flynn and Kushner might have been prepared to go over his head to secretly broker some sort of deal with Russia. With Tillerson in charge instead, they didn’t need to worry about interference from Russia-haters at State. Either way, it’s hard to understand why Kushner would have forgotten about the “secret channel” if this was all about getting paid under the table by Moscow. More likely, as Douthat and Welch suggest, is that he stupidly thought this was a smart way to do diplomatic business. The guy who’s in charge of running most of the U.S. government these days really might have asked the Russian ambassador if he could use his phone because he … doesn’t know any better.

Although even in the best-case scenario, where Kushner is interested in using Russia’s secure line only because he fears Obama administration leaks, you’re still left with this conclusion from Josh Barro:


We already knew that, though, didn’t we?

One last note: Even Reuters’s sources, amid hint-hinting at a corruption possibility for Kushner’s actions, admit that “so far they have not seen evidence of any wrongdoing or collusion between the Trump camp and the Kremlin.” As shady as Kushner’s behavior looks, there’s still nothing like a smoking gun pointing to malfeasance rather than incompetence. Exit question: Is there really such a thing as a “secure line” in Russia’s diplomatic facilities that Kushner could have used to talk privately with Moscow, without U.S. intelligence knowing? Given the NSA’s powers, it’s hard to believe they haven’t cracked that nut yet. Which means Kushner’s lucky that the “secret channel” never came to be. American spies probably would have heard every “secret” word that he or Flynn said to the Kremlin.