Report: Kushner wanted to set up secret communications channel with the Kremlin (Update: monitor Syria)

Yesterday I wrote about the report at NBC News that the FBI was not scrutinizing Jared Kushner in its Russia investigation. I pointed out yesterday that the story was a) anonymous and b) didn’t give us enough information to determine whether Kushner might know something significant. Today there’s a followup story of sorts at the Washington Post:

Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of 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, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Ambassador Sergei Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, son-in-law and confidant to then-President-elect Trump, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.

Kislyak was reportedly taken aback by this suggestion as it would involve allowing Americans to use their secret communications network. Also in the room at the time this meeting took place: Michael Flynn. Obviously, this is another story based on an anonymous source. The Post says the communications inside the room were not monitored. So that means this is based on intercepted communications between Kislyak and the Kremlin which someone in our intelligence community has now leaked to the Post.

A few points about this story. First, the fact that we monitor the Russian ambassador’s communications isn’t a secret, but specific conversations like the one above are classified information. Someone at the FBI or the NSA is putting themselves way out on a limb here, presumably with the intent of damaging Kushner. Even if the story is true, there’s a motive behind the leak.

Second, if Kislyak assumes, as he probably does, that his communications are intercepted, then it’s also possible that not everything he reports home is true. This is similar to another report this week about Russian officials bragging they could control Trump through Gen. Flynn. They may have said those things but that doesn’t make them true. In that case, the story itself said we didn’t know if they’d actually tried to influence anyone, only that they’d talked about doing it.

Third, even if all of this is true, it’s important to note this happened weeks after the election. So whatever Kushner wanted to talk to the Russians about it wasn’t swinging the election for Trump. That was already over and done at this point.

Finally, unlike the story yesterday which didn’t really offer any details about what Kushner might know, this one at least presents us with a story. If that story is true, and I just noted several caveats why it might not be, then this seems like a very weird request. Why would Kushner want a secret line to the Kremlin? And why would he think that line is secret if, in fact, it’s being routinely monitored by the NSA? But even assuming Kushner didn’t know that, what information did he need to convey that he didn’t want anyone to be aware of? Bottom line: If it’s true it’s certainly worth investigating.

Update: After the Post published its story, the NY Times published a follow-up explaining what happened in more detail:

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, spoke in December with Russia’s ambassador to the United States about establishing a secret communications channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow to discuss strategy in Syria and other policy issues, according to three people with knowledge of the discussion…

The idea behind the secret communications channel, the three people said, was for Russian military officials to brief Mr. Flynn about the Syrian war and to discuss ways to cooperate there. Neither side followed up on it.

The Times says it can’t confirm some of the details in the Post story, including that the Russian ambassador was surprised by the request. What it does claim to confirm (through 3 anonymous sources) is that the meeting took place and the plan was discussed and later dropped. Not answered in the Times story: Why the White House would need such a communications channel between Flynn and the Kremlin. As the Times puts it “it is unclear why such communications would have needed to be carried out though [sic] a secret channel.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Times’ story once again emphasizes that Kushner is not a subject of the investigation.