WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and now top White House adviser Jared Kushner proposed a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting with a leading Russian diplomat, The Associated Press has learned.

Kushner spoke with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about creating that line of communication to facilitate sensitive discussions aimed at exploring the incoming administration’s options with Russia as it was developing its Syria policy, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The intent was to connect Trump’s chief national security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, with Russian military leaders, said this person, who wasn’t authorised to publicly discuss private policy deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russia, a pivotal player in Syria, has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, often at the expense of civilians during a long civil war.

The Trump team eventually felt there was no need for a back channel once Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state, and decided to communicate with Moscow through more official channels, according to the person familiar with the developments.

Kushner’s involvement in the proposed back channel was first reported by The Washington Post, which said he proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities for the discussions, apparently to make them more difficult to monitor. The newspaper cited anonymous US officials who were briefed on intelligence reports on intercepted Russian communications.

The Post wrote that Kislyak was reportedly taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.

The White House confirmed in March that Kushner met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in December, dismissing them as standard diplomatic meetings. One White House official at the time characterised it as a brief courtesy meeting and confirmed that Flynn was in the room.

The disclosure of the back channel put White House advisers on the defensive on Saturday, as Trump wrapped up his first foreign trip as president, and led lawyers for Kushner to say he is willing to talk with federal and congressional investigators about his foreign contacts and his work on the Trump campaign.

Speaking generally, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said “we have back channel communications with a number of countries.” He added: “It allows you to communicate in a discreet manner.”

Kushner was a trusted Trump advi­ser last year, overseeing the campaign’s digital strategy, and remains an influential confidant within the White House as does his wife, Ivanka Trump.

On Saturday, the AP confirmed that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, has requested information and documents Trump’s campaign.

The request from the Senate Intelligence Committee arrived last week at campaign headquarters in New York, according to person familiar with the request who wasn’t authorised to discuss the developments publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. It was said to be the first time any investigators have made inquiries with Trump’s campaign officials.

Three undisclosed contacts

The Post first reported the request, which covers materials such as emails, phone records and documents dating to Trump’s first days as a candidate in July 2015. Those inquiries now include scrutiny of Kushner, according to the newspaper.

Obama administration officials have previously told the AP that the frequency of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak raised enough red flags that aides discussed the possibility Trump was trying to establish a one-to-one line of communication a back channel with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In addition, Reuters reported that Kushner had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with Kislyak last year, including two phone calls between April and November. Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, told Reuters that Kushner “has no recollection of the calls as described”.

Defence attorneys and former FBI agents say that one likely area of interest for investigators would be Kush­ner’s own meetings with Russians, given that such encounters with a variety of Trump associates are at the root of the sprawling probe, now overseen by former FBI Director Robert Muel­ler. Investigators are also interested in a meeting Kushner had with the Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, according to reports from The Post and NBC News.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2017

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