Report: Kushner Discussed Setting Up Secret Communications With Russia

May 26, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 4:54 pm

Updated at 10:09 p.m. ET

Jared Kushner discussed the possibility of Trump's transition team secretly communicating with the Kremlin, the Washington Post reports. Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, spoke with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in early December of last year about setting up a "secure communications channel ... using Russian diplomatic facilities" in the U.S., according to the report.

Intercepts of Russian communications reportedly found that Kislyak told his superiors about the conversation. The Post cites "U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports." NPR has not independently confirmed the Post's report.

Then-Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn was also in the meeting, the Post says. After Trump took office, Flynn was forced to resign from the administration because of revelations that he had misrepresented his conversations with Kislyak to Vice President Pence.

The White House previously disclosed that the meeting between Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak had occurred. Friday's report reveals one of the things they discussed: the possibility of a direct and secret line of communication.

Post reporter Greg Miller, who shared a byline with two other reporters on the story, tells NPR establishing such a channel "would be pretty extraordinary."

"I really don't know of an instance in history where an incoming administration is trying to set up a private channel of communication with Moscow," Miller says.

Miller reports that even Russians were concerned about the security risks of such an arrangement.

"For Russia, it's extremely important that their officials here are able to talk with ... the government in Moscow beyond U.S. surveillance — out of reach of U.S. surveillance," he says. "So bringing an American in to use that phone line would be pretty remarkable."

The FBI reportedly considers the conversations to be of investigative interest.

"It's easy to see why the FBI would be intrigued by this," Miller says.

The White House declined to comment, Miller says, adding, "That's not for lack of trying" on the part of the Washington Post.

The CIA concluded in December that Russia had attempted to interfere in the U.S. election with the intention of aiding Trump. There have been multiple congressional committee investigations launched as well as an FBI investigation into Russian election meddling and possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia. Since the firing of FBI Director James Comey, a special counsel has been tapped to lead the FBI probe, and the various congressional committees are continuing their work.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is seeking documents from Flynn related to his interactions with Russian officials. Flynn has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to hand over potentially relevant material. The committee is now trying a different approach: subpoenaing Flynn's businesses for information. Flynn has offered to testify before Congress in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Trump's actions relating to the Justice Department's Russia probe have also been under scrutiny. Trump reportedly asked the director of national intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to push back against the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

In a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said, "I have always believed that given the nature of my position it is not appropriate for me to comment publicly on any of that. So I don't feel it's appropriate to characterize discussions with the president." Trump also asked Comey to close down the FBI investigation into Flynn, two sources close to the former FBI director told NPR a week after Comey's firing. The White House has denied that Trump asked Comey to end the FBI's inquiry regarding Flynn.

The president also faced backlash over revelations that he shared "highly classified" information with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an Oval Office meeting — which took place the day after Trump fired Comey. The president defended the intelligence sharing and said he had "the absolute right" to share information about ISIS plots involving airplanes with the two top Russian diplomats.

In a May 18 press conference prior to departing for a weeklong trip overseas, the president denied there was any collusion between himself or his campaign and Russia.

"There is no collusion between, certainly myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero," Trump said.

"Believe me, there's no collusion," he continued. "Russia is fine, but whether it's Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America."

The president has also described the various inquiries into Russian election meddling and possible collusion between Moscow and some of his campaign aides as "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"

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The Washington Post reports this evening that President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, discussed with the Russian ambassador the possibility of having a secret direct channel to the Kremlin leading up to the inauguration. And The Post reports that the FBI considers those conversations to be of investigative interest. National security reporter Greg Miller co-wrote this story for The Post. Welcome to the program.

GREG MILLER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: The White House voluntarily disclosed some information about these meetings back in March. Tell us what you're reporting today that is new.

MILLER: So we are learning more about what occurs in this meeting? You're right that the White House would - might quibble with the word voluntarily, but they - you're right that they did disclose this meeting had occurred in early December with then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, with Jared Kushner, the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

What we're learning more about tonight is one of the items that was discussed in that meeting, and it has to do with an idea of setting up a secure or private channel of communication going forward between Moscow and the Trump transition team that presumably would be beyond the scrutiny or monitoring of the U.S. government or the Obama administration.

SHAPIRO: How unusual would that be?

MILLER: I think it would be pretty extraordinary. I mean I really don't know of an instance in history where an incoming administration is trying to set up a private channel of communication with Moscow, let alone one that, you know, according Kislyak's account of this meeting, would involve using Russian communication facilities or equipment at Russian compounds, either the embassy or other diplomatic compounds in the United States. I mean it's hard to see another scenario in which that happens.

SHAPIRO: You write that even the Russians had some concerns about the security implications of this. What would the security implications be?

MILLER: Well, I mean essentially this would this would involve bringing a U.S. citizen, an American, into the Russian embassy, consulate or other facility, taking them into the most secure part of that building and putting them on the line with Moscow through the most sophisticated communication gear that the - Russia might have.

I mean for Russia, it's extremely important that their officials here are able to talk with Moscow - with the government in Moscow beyond the - beyond U.S. surveillance, out of reach of U.S. surveillance. So bringing an American in to use that that phone line would be pretty remarkable.

SHAPIRO: Now, as I said, you also reported that the FBI considers these conversations of investigative interest. Describe how this fits into the larger picture of the ongoing investigation into the Trump team's ties to Russia.

MILLER: Well, I think that, you know - I think it's easy to see why the FBI would be intrigued by this. Why would the Russian ambassador be telling his bosses that the incoming president's closest adviser and son-in-law wants a private channel, a private way of talking? Why would they want that? There are all these other ways of communicating with Moscow on open channels. Or if you really need it, the State Department or the White House could probably help you set up a secure channel with Moscow if that was really that important. What is this about?

SHAPIRO: What is it about from the perspective of the Trump administration? What have they told you?

MILLER: Well, in this case, we got very little that we could use for the story. I mean you can see in the story, we have a - that the White House declined to comment. That's not for lack of trying. We spent a good deal of effort trying to get the White House version of events or a White House response to this. They were unwilling to provide that on the record.

SHAPIRO: That's Greg Miller of The Washington Post. Thanks very much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.