Let me follow up on last night’s Post blockbuster about Jared Kushner and an attempted back-channel to Moscow.
To review, Kushner allegedly asked Russian Ambassador Kislyak to arrange a secret, secure back-channel through which members of the Trump team could communicate directly to the Kremlin. But this additional detail was the heart of last night’s Post blockbuster: Kushner reportedly asked Kislyak to allow Trump team members access to the secure facilities Russia itself uses to send secure communications from the US back to Moscow. This presumably involves secure facilities/hardware at the Russian Embassy and other US-located diplomatic facilities. These definitely exist. We have the same thing in Moscow.
It is difficult to capture how extraordinary and close to incomprehensible such a step would be. As a number of former intelligence officials have noted, if an intelligence officer or really any other US government official did this it would be considered espionage.
This meant opening a channel where Trump team members could speak openly with Russian counterparts without fear of being heard by and behind the backs of the US intelligence community, US diplomats and the US military. Why do you want or need that? Even Kislyak was apparently taken aback by the request. And as a sidelight to this, even if we believe the absolute worst about Kushner and Flynn, no country would ever let foreign nationals have access to those kinds of facilities.
Why would Kushner and Flynn push for such a secret channel of communications?
A Reuters report published a short time after the Post story added this key detail (emphasis added) …
FBI investigators are examining whether Russians suggested to Kushner or other Trump aides that relaxing economic sanctions would allow Russian banks to offer financing to people with ties to Trump, said the current U.S. law enforcement official.
The head of Russian state-owned Vnesheconombank, Sergei Nikolaevich Gorkov, a trained intelligence officer whom Putin appointed, met Kushner at Trump Tower in December. The bank is under U.S. sanctions and was implicated in a 2015 espionage case in which one of its New York executives pleaded guilty to spying and was jailed.
The bank said in a statement in March that it had met with Kushner along with other representatives of U.S. banks and business as part of preparing a new corporate strategy.
Let’s note that this is something investigators are supposedly “examining.” That doesn’t mean it happened. But the near contemporaneous meetings between Kushner and Gorkov are quite difficult to explain in any innocent way.
A bit later in the evening, the Times followed with its own version of the story. The Times was not able to report the detail about using Russian secure communications facilities for the secret channel but neither did it dispute that part of the story. The key detail in the Times story is an alternative version of why Kushner and Flynn were trying to do this.
It is unclear who first proposed the communications channel, but the people familiar with the meeting said the idea was to have Mr. Flynn speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues. The communications channel was never set up, the people said.
The three people were not authorized to discuss the December meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The White House declined to comment on Friday night.
If this explanation were proposed by anyone else I would say it was absurd on its face. But it comes under the bylines of three of the Times’ best reporters. Is this credible?
I would say it is not a credible explanation, at least if by that we mean an explanation of some legitimate activity. Remember, this all takes place in December. Trump would be President just a month later. Normally, it would be highly irregular for an incoming national security team to be this actively involved in policy during the transition. But certainly Flynn could speak to whoever he wanted to. It is difficult to imagine anything so urgent that it couldn’t wait until Trump’s team was in office in January. It is similarly hard to imagine what details Flynn would need access to. After all, the US also has a military and even intelligence services. They could certainly brief Flynn on a lot of what was going on in Syria.
Flynn apparently wanted to have these communications in secret without the US military, the intelligence services or the Obama administration knowing about the communications or the details which were being discussed. I think it is highly unlikely that this was to discuss operational military matters in Syria. And if it were, the only reasonable explanation for the secrecy from the US government is that bad acts of some sort on Flynn or Kushner’s part were involved.
Indeed, the Times itself says as much a bit later in the article …
Even if the proposal was designed primarily as a conduit to discuss policy issues, it is unclear why such communications would have needed to be carried out though a secret channel.
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. And less than two weeks later, the idea was dropped when Mr. Trump announced that Rex W. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil who had worked closely with Russian officials on energy deals, was his choice to become secretary of state.
Why Tillerson’s entry into the picture would change anything in this regard is a mystery to me. But that’s another story.
We’ve wondered for months why Mike Flynn would communicate with Sergei Kislyak on phone lines he would have known – indeed, was explicitly warned – would be monitored by US intelligence. This mystery seems at least partly solved. He and Kushner knew they needed a mode of communication with Moscow that would remain secret from US intelligence, the US military etc. They asked Kislyak to help them set it up.
We shouldn’t assume they didn’t succeed.