What are we supposed to make of the news that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, met with the Russian ambassador in December to discuss establishing a back channel between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities?
Start with the reactions from America’s intelligence community, whose job it is to monitor foreign actors’ attempts to steal the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.
Michael Hayden, the former C.I.A. director, said this: “What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?” Another former top intelligence official called it “extremely naïve or absolutely crazy.”
Mr. Kushner is now under scrutiny by F.B.I. investigators looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.Continue reading the main story
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Stupidity, paranoia, malevolence — it’s hard to distinguish among competing explanations for the behavior of people in this administration. In the case of Mr. Kushner’s meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador, and his meeting that month with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker with close ties to the Kremlin and Russian intelligence, even the most benign of the various working theories suggests that Mr. Kushner, who had no experience in politics or diplomacy before Mr. Trump’s campaign, is in way over his head.
Meanwhile, if reports of the Kislyak meeting are accurate (the White House has not denied them), the fact is Mr. Kushner, while still a private citizen, met secretly with officials from a hostile power that had just orchestrated a campaign aimed at damaging American democracy and swinging the election to Mr. Trump. He discussed setting up a direct line with that power that would be hidden entirely from American intelligence.
And then, only weeks later, he forgot all about it — or so claims his lawyer, who characterized Mr. Kushner’s failure to mention the meetings on his security-clearance application, along with dozens of others he held with foreign officials, as a mere “error.” For his sake, it better have been; falsifying or concealing material facts is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
The problem isn’t establishing a back channel; presidential administrations and transitions have used them throughout history as a way to keep a low profile during sensitive negotiations. But communicating through Russian facilities would have exposed Mr. Kushner and others to serious risks of extortion. And there’s the bizarre and repeated secrecy around meetings with the Russian ambassador (see, e.g., Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions) that has already caused a lot of collateral damage to this administration.
At a minimum, this pattern of meetings and concealment, whether by design or through carelessness, raises larger concerns about Mr. Kushner’s fitness for the hugely consequential role Mr. Trump has given him — a vast portfolio of responsibilities that includes negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and reinventing the federal government.
Democrats in Congress are calling for Mr. Kushner’s security clearance to be suspended or revoked, which seems reasonable enough, but also like a distraction from the main question: What is Mr. Kushner doing in this job? He has told friends that he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, will regularly re-evaluate whether to return to their natural habitat among New York City’s real estate and social elites. Given Mr. Trump’s clannish reflexes and obsession with loyalty, he is unlikely to encourage such a move, but he should, in his own interest as well as the public’s. His son-in-law, a man he won’t fire, his closest and perhaps most influential confidant and executive, is already struggling with his role — and is now dealing with the distraction of an active investigation. No other White House — no business, except maybe a wholly owned and rather tawdry and occasionally bankrupt casino operation — would be run this way.