Following the Washington Post report on Friday that top White House adviser Jared Kushner had approached the Russian ambassador to the US about opening a secret line of communications between Moscow and the Trump transition team in the months prior to his father-in-law’s inauguration, the White House has been trying to beat down the story.
The administration sent out National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, one a current Army general and the other a retired Marine Corps general, to deliver a similar message over the weekend. Their goal was to convince the public that the apparent attempt by Kushner to set up a communication channel with Russia that would be shielded from US intelligence agencies was nothing surprising. This, even though Kushner was a private citizen at the time, the Obama administration was still in charge of US foreign policy, and Kushner reportedly asked if it would be possible to use secure communications facilities within the Russian embassy.
Asked about it on Fox News Sunday, Kelly said, “I don’t see the big deal.”
He explained, “I think any channel of communications back or otherwise with a country like Russia is a good thing. I mean, multiple ways to communicate back and forth is a good thing with a country I think, and particularly a country that’s like Russia. So, it doesn’t -- it doesn't bother me.”
This doesn’t pass the laugh test. Imagine the reaction if President-elect Hillary Clinton had brought both her daughter Chelsea and son-in-law Mark Mezvinsky onto her transition. Then imagine that Mezvinsky had tried to conduct secret freelance diplomacy with Moscow from inside the Russian embassy.
Once the mess from all the Republican heads exploding had been cleared up, any members of the GOP left standing would have been screaming for a treason prosecution.
But there’s a more coherent reason to question how serious the allegation against Kushner is, and that was articulated Sunday morning by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham who, in an appearance on CNN, rightly pointed out that “We're chasing our tails as a nation when it comes to the Russians.”
Point one, Graham said, is the provenance of the story. The Post report cited senior US officials who claimed that American intelligence officers had intercepted a discussion between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his superiors in the Kremlin in which he informed them of Kushner’s request to open up the secret line of communication.
Kislyak is widely considered to be a top Russian intelligence operative with decades of experience, which plays into the first of Graham’s questions about the story.
“I don't know who leaked this supposed conversation, but just think about it this way,” Graham told CNN’s Dana Bash. “You have got the ambassador to Russia reporting back to Moscow on an open channel, ‘Hey, Jared Kushner is going to move into the embassy.’ I don't trust this story as far as I can throw it.”
He added, “It makes no sense that the Russian ambassador would report back to Moscow on a channel that he most likely knows we're monitoring. The whole storyline is suspicious.”
Graham’s suggestion was that Kislyak had made the comments on the call knowing they would be intercepted and had therefore potentially made them up or made Kushner’s request appear more outlandish than it really was.
Others who tend to believe the Kushner allegations are true, argue that the Russian government would have had no incentive to burn the Trump administration that way. The Kremlin, according to US intelligence officials, actively interfered in the November presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and appears to have believed the US-Russia relationship would be warmer under the new administration.
But Graham also pointed out that the goal of Russian operations all along has been to sow doubt about what can and can’t be believed, sometimes by planting false information in the hope that foreign media or intelligence services would pick it up and run with it.
He cited another Washington Post story from early last week, in which it was alleged that some in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, including former director James Comey, may have been taken in by a fake message that intelligence officials believe originated with Russian intelligence. The message, an email, purportedly described an agreement between former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Hillary Clinton campaign under which Lynch agreed to quash an ongoing investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email server while secretary of state if an indictment looked likely.
The email reportedly spurred Comey to make a highly unusual public statement about the conclusion of the FBI investigation without informing DOJ.
However, the consensus opinion in the FBI, The Post reported, is now that the message was fake.
“If that was fake, why don't you think this is fake?” Graham asked, referring to the Kushner allegations. “I'm not so sure the e-mail that Comey relied upon was fake. But I can tell you this. He never briefed the Congress, the Judiciary Committee, about any fake e-mail.
“What he told the Intelligence Committee about this e-mail, he never suggested it was fake. So, if he intervened in the election – [the] election based on fake information generated by the Russians -- that was an incredibly incompetent thing to do. So, I don't really know who to believe anymore.”
Whether the story about Kushner’s secret communication request are true or not, it appears the Russian disinformation campaign has been successful at sowing doubt, at least in the mind of one prominent senator.