The Trump White House is reportedly considering a major personnel shake-up, in response to the latest in a string of Russia-related scandals that have kept the administration on the defensive for weeks.
Trump team ducks questions on report Kushner wanted secret line with Russia
Donald Trump returned to the US from a relatively successful nine-day international tour on Saturday – a day after the Washington Post reported that Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior aide, sought to set up secret “back channel” communications between Russia and the Trump presidential transition team in December 2016.
The White House did not directly comment on the report although Trump later tweeted that the reports were “fabricated”.
National security adviser HR McMaster told reporters in Sicily on Saturday he was “not concerned” and on Sunday homeland security secretary John Kelly told NBC he did not “see any big issue here relative to Jared”.
Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Kelly said “back channel” communications were “both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable. Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organizations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing.”
Any such efforts by the Trump transition team would however have been contrary to the accepted practice of “one president at a time”, in which outgoing administrations remain in charge of foreign affairs until inauguration day.
In office, Trump remains under pressure. The FBI and several congressional committees are currently investigating contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials.
According to press reports citing anonymous sources, the White House is in the process of putting together a new public relations operation, known in DC parlance as a “war room”, to deal with ongoing revelations. Trump is also reported to be considering retooling the way his administration communicates with the press and public.
This could include, as the Washington Post reported, a smaller role for press secretary Sean Spicer, more campaign-style rallies – although an event scheduled for Iowa on Thursday was canceled this weekend – and perhaps the return of Corey Lewandowski, who was fired as Trump’s campaign manager last year.
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It was not initially clear if Kushner stepping down or taking on a reduced role is part of the potential reshuffle. On Sunday Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told ABC’s This Week that reports about Kushner were “obviously very concerning … in the context of an election campaign where the Russians had been intervening to help Donald Trump and to hurt Hillary Clinton.”
Congress, Schiff said, needed to “get to the bottom” of the allegations against Kushner, which if they were true would mean “there’s no way” Kushner should be allowed to keep his security clearance.
Kushner has expressed a willingness to testify about his meetings with Russian officials including the ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
“Mr Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings,” attorney Jamie Gorelick said on Thursday. “He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”
Earlier this week, before the “back channel” allegations surfaced, it was reported that the FBI was looking into Kushner’s contacts with Russia, indicating that its investigation has reached not only the Trump’s inner circle but his family. According to the Washington Post, the FBI is looking at a Trump Tower meeting between Kushner and Russian diplomat Kislyak as an item of “investigative interest”.
In public on Sunday, Trump and senior administration figures sought to deflect the focus onto “leakers” and the press.
In a string of early morning tweets, of which some were deleted and reposted for spelling errors, Trump said it was his opinion that “many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media”.
Saying it was “very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers”, Trump also complained about leaks believed to have come from US intelligence sources regarding the suicide bombing in Manchester earlier this week in which 22 people were killed.
“British prime minister May was very angry that the info the UK gave to US about Manchester was leaked,” he wrote. “Gave me full details!”
News stories quoting anonymous sources are a staple of US political journalism. Trump himself has frequently cited anonymous sources, notably in his public criticism of the Obama administration, most infamously when announcing in 2012 that an “extremely credible source” had told him Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fraudulent – a demonstrably untrue claim.
Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kelly said it was “borderline, if not over the line of treason” to leak highly classified information from foreign intelligence.
“It’s darn close to treason,” he added.
The homeland security secretary was specifically talking about information leaked relating to the bombing in Manchester, but the comments had broader implications under a presidency that has been either implicated in or the victim of numerous leaks of sensitive information.
Obama director of national intelligence James Clapper, meanwhile, told NBC Kushner’s reported attempt to initiate back channel talks with Moscow “certainly arouses your concern about what is going on, given [that] Russia, at least for my money, is our primary adversary”.
“They are not our friends,” he said. “They are in to do us in.”