It is difficult to understand exactly what motivated Jared Kushner to propose secret back-channel communications with Russia last December. As first reported by The Washington Post last week Donald Trump’s son-in-law sought a secure communications channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin using Russian communications equipment, which strongly suggests the incoming administration wanted to avoid U.S. intelligence monitoring.
Why did Kushner make the request of Ambassador Sergey Kislyak? Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but so far, it’s not been forthcoming from the White House, and that’s distressing. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s claim that back channel communications are “both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable” doesn’t fully explain the circumstances of the request coming from someone who is so close to Trump and on the heels of an election in which Russian interference looms large.
One possible explanation is that top Trump transition members were seeking Russian help with Syria, which is potentially reasonable given the country’s alliance with President Bashar Assad and the terrible price being paid by innocent civilians in the 6-year-old civil war. But if so, why insist on using the communications through the Russian embassy or consulate? It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the effort involved Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser fired in February for providing misleading information about his own meetings with Ambassador Kislyak who also has financial ties to Russian insiders.
If this was the first example of questionable contact between Trump’s associates and the Russians, or if this was some minor functionary and not the husband of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, the concerns raised so far might not loom so large. But Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election are now well established, and the possibility that seemed more spy novel-inspired than real world — that there might have been collusion between the Trump campaign and allies of Vladimir Putin — no longer seems out of the realm of possibility.
Kushner, who has sought to avoid the limelight, cannot afford to do so any longer. The charge that he sought to use a hostile government’s communications system to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s government is too serious an allegation for the 36-year-old to continue his role as a top White House adviser — at least until he’s provided some explanation for it (as well as several other previously unreported contacts with Kislyak during the campaign). Democratic calls for a review of Kushner’s security clearance appear perfectly reasonable under these unusual circumstances.
Tuesday’s resignation by Mike Dubke, President Trump’s communications director, in the midst of a rumored staff shake-up suggest the White House may see the current imbroglio as more of a messaging problem then a national security question. If so, that would be a serious mistake. It isn’t the White House press corps that deserves answers about Kushner’s behavior and what, if any, connection there is between Russian hacking of the election and the Trump team; it’s the people who elected him to office. And the administration’s pattern of attacking the media for offering “fabricated lies” and demanding investigations into those within the government who leak information has become a tiresome exercise in sidestepping this essential issue.
President Trump needs to stop acting like he’s got something to hide (unless, of course, he does) and let Congress and Trump-Russia special prosecutor Robert Mueller do their jobs. The notion that such a key Trump aide was more trusting of Russia than the American government is nothing short of chilling. Americans have a right to know exactly why it happened.
This editorial originally was published in the Baltimore Sun.