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Trump's son-in-law sought Russian help to skirt US intelligence

Kushner’s request for a back channel communication system was reportedly caught by US authorities in intercepted communications between the Russian ambassador and Moscow.

world Updated: May 27, 2017 20:52 IST
Yashwant Raj
US President Donald Trump
File photo of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner at the White House.(Reuters)

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and his most trusted adviser, is reported to have asked the Russians to set up a secret back-channel communication system between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin last December in order to circumvent American monitoring.

Kushner, who emerged as a key figure in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and alleged collusion by Trump campaign aides, is also reported to have had more contacts with Russians than previously disclosed.

There was no response from the White House or Kushner’s lawyer for hours significantly after the reporting of these new revelations — inevitably branded “bombshells” by some commentators and TV news anchors — adding to an expanding body of juicy details that don’t add up to a case yet.

His request for a back channel communication system was caught by US authorities in intercepted communications between Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Moscow. The entire Russian diplomatic mission is under constant US surveillance, including and specially its communication system.

In the intercept, Kislyak told Moscow that Kushner had made the request in a meeting at Trump Tower on December 1 or 2 — less than three weeks after the election — and asked specifically for the system to be housed in Russian diplomatic facilities. Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn was present at this meeting.

The Russian ambassador was surprised by the request, according to reports citing unidentified US officials. And, it was a move fraught with risks for the Russians as well — why allow an American access their sophisticated equipment?

That request never led to anything more consequential and legal experts said that despite its obvious peculiarity, it did not amount to criminal act. To some, it reflected naivete of someone new to all this, but to others, such as Evan McMullin, former CIA operative who ran for the White House in 2016, it was “(if true) treasonous activity”.

Kushner is a compelling figure in this administration. He has the president’s ear and has such broad authorities — from running ties with China and Mexico, to exploring peace in West Asia, to upgrading federal government infrastructure — that he has been dubbed the “secretary of everything”.

Though he has not been charged with any crime or been accused of any wrongdoing and has not even been described as a “target”, his emergence as a key figure in the investigation puts the spotlight on the First Family.

The Washington Post, which first reported Kushner’s unusual request, also pointed to an alternate scenario based on Russian practice of feeding false information into the communication channel they know to be under surveillance to mislead Americans. Kislyak did not have to use that channel for communicating the pitch from Kushner.

But, as some experts have argued, why would Kislyak, an acclaimed spymaster himself, knowingly jeopardise the opportunity to own a source like Kushner whose proximity to the president would have afforded Moscow the kind of access to the White House fantasized by writers of spy thrillers?

But Kushner appears to have known what he was doing. This Trump Tower meeting was not his first interaction with the Russian ambassador. Reuters reported at least two more previously undisclosed contacts — both phone calls between April and December.

Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, told Reuters that her client did not remember any calls with Kislyak between April and November. “Mr Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period. He 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, but we have not received such information,” she said.