The big news emanating out of DC late yesterday was that allegedly President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spoke to the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about establishing a backchannel communication with Russia to prevent US intelligence agencies from eavesdropping on Trump transition team conversations. Ironically, Kislyak was eavesdropped on as he reported this conversation to his superiors in Moscow.
Russia at times feeds false information into communication streams it suspects are monitored as a way of sowing misinformation and confusion among U.S. analysts. But officials said that it’s unclear what Kislyak would have had to gain by falsely characterizing his contacts with Kushner to Moscow, particularly at a time when the Kremlin still saw the prospect of dramatically improved relations with Trump.
The question came up at a press conference in Italy. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster is travelling with Trump (not sure what this means in terms of the current Washington sport of denigrating McMaster and his influence on foreign policy) and fielded the question:
McMaster said he could not talk about Kushner’s talks with Russia because “it’s not something that I’ve in any way been involved with or that I have any knowledge of.”
McMaster, a decorated three-star Army general, was asked whether he would be concerned if an official on his National Security Council staff or elsewhere in the Trump administration sought a back-channel communications system with the Russian embassy or the Kremlin in Moscow.
“No,” McMaster said. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.”
He continued, “No, I would not be concerned about it.”
No. 1 McMaster on back-channel comms: "It doesn’t pre-dispose you toward any sort of content of that conversation or anything."
— Major Garrett (@MajorCBS) May 27, 2017
No. 2 "So no, I would not be concerned about it." McMaster on back-channel communications, generally.
— Major Garrett (@MajorCBS) May 27, 2017
I’ve read a half-dozen stories on this revelation and am struggling to find the cause for concern.
As McMaster says, backchannels are common. Whether or not there is misconduct depends primarily upon whether the backchannel is authorized. If you are a liaison officer to a foreign military or a military attache you have official channels of information and you have backchannels with foreign officers and officials that allow you to understand reasoning and context behind decisions. They will tell you things over a beer they’d never tell you in a conference room. You perform the same service for them. So long as you report the contacts and conversations all is well. When you don’t, bad things can happen to you. It would seem that this proposed backchannel was authorized by the only people who mattered (news flash, the intelligence community does not get to make that decision because they actually work for the White House, not the other way around.) The commotion is doubly silly because the backchannel never actually materialized. Plus, the fact that a lot of what should have been confidential discussions by the Trump transition team ended up on the front page of the Washington Post and New York Times thanks to illegal actions by members of the intelligence community–like this story, for instance–their concern about secure conversations seems warranted.
On the other hand, it was a blindingly stupid idea from a political standpoint. By the time this alleged conversation took place, the CIA was claiming that Russia had intervened in the US election with the intent of electing Trump. Anyone with even the most infantile of political instincts should have realized that suggesting this was a) bound to eventually leak and b) the leak would play into the whole collusion melodrama. I don’t fault Kushner for his wide-eyed naïveté but Mike Flynn, a guy who should have had enough sense to know that Kislyak was going to report this to his superiors and that there was a good chance the NSA was going to sniff it out, was allegedly in the same meeting.
It is hard to see where this goes from any legal standpoint unless Kushner ends up accused of lying to investigators but just when the Trump administration thought it was catching a breather from the Russia stuff this surfaces and puts them nearly back at square one.