On Friday night two versions of an incredible story emerged.
They both start like this: In early December, Jared Kushner and future former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn met with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower to see about setting up a secret communication channel between the transition team and Moscow.
One version — from Ellen Nakashima, Adam Entous, and Greg Miller of the Washington Post — is full of ominous portent, suggesting Kushner was embarked on a kind of amateur hour cloak and dagger scheme whose purpose was to allow Trump to conceal communications with Russia from America’s own intelligence services. The Post version posted first, and immediately set Washington ablaze with former officials remarking on the staggering mix of stupidity and near-treasonous behavior implied by the Post’s reporting.
Then a couple of hours later, Maggie Haberman, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo filed a report for the New York Times citing “three people with knowledge of the discussion” as explaining that the whole thing was perfectly innocent and simply reflected a desire “to discuss strategy in Syria and other policy issues.”
Both the Times and the Post did, however, offhandedly mention a possible connection to a separate meeting Kushner later had with an executive of a sanctioned Russian bank. And while the investigation into Trump-Russia links necessarily focuses largely on actual or potential breaking of the law, the elephant in the room continues to be the policy aspects of Donald Trump’s curious affection for Vladimir Putin — on display this week as Trump took on occasion intended to mark his reaffirmation of America’s commitment to European defense and instead used it to undermine that commitment.
A tale of two scoops
In the New York Times’ innocuous version of events “the idea was to have Mr. Flynn speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues.” For the president-elect’s incoming National Security Advisor to conduct direct talks about ongoing military operations with a foreign government outside the auspices of the American government would be highly unorthodox but not necessarily indicative of anything more nefarious than Flynn’s deep distrust for an Obama administration national security team that, after all, fired him.
This explanation is, however, somewhat difficult to square with the key claim of the Washington Post’s report which is that Kushner not only asked Kislyak to set up a line of communication with Moscow, but specifically suggested “using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring” by the American government.
The idea of discussions between Russia and the incoming administration seems innocent enough on its own terms, but the apparent effort to set up a line of communications that would be concealed from the American government suggests something more sinister.
Three questions about the Times account
The reporters and editors at the Times are putting forward their account not merely as a faithful representative of what it is that White House sources are saying about the Kushner-Kislyak conversation but as an accurate representation of the underlying reality.
That proposed backchannel between Kushner and the Kremlin was about Syria: @maggieNYT @markmazzettiNYT @mattapuzzo https://t.co/6s7idK9KbO— Lara Jakes (@jakesNYT) May 27, 2017
Documentary evidence or sworn testimony may emerge some day to confirm this characterization of events, but on its own terms it seems hard to believe for three reasons.
- One is that it’s not clear why a Syria backchannel the Times is positing would require access to the Russian government’s secure diplomatic communication channels.
- The other is that it’s not clear from the Times’ account why the backchannel was never established. In the Post’s story, Russia rejected the use of diplomatic channels as unworkable and then Kushner dropped the matter since the ability to evade US government surveillance was evidently key to whatever he wanted.
- Last, the Trump White House simply lies very frequently. Sometimes they lie about obvious, easily checkable facts like how many people attended Trump’s inauguration or whether or NATO members owe a financial debt to the United States. When a group of people lie frequently, it seems sensible to discount their future self-serving but unverifiable claims.
The Vnesheconombank angle
A stray line in the Times story offers a hint of a possible alternate explanation for Kushner’s unusual communications requests:
In the days after the meeting with Mr. Kislyak, Mr. Kushner had a separate meeting with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker with close links to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The Post’s reporting also mentions the Gorkov meeting, more pointedly suggesting that FBI investigators see a possible link between the two events:
The White House disclosed the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.
Tim O’Brien of Bloomberg View, a Trump biographer who Trump has in the past unsuccessfully sued for libel, speculates that Kushner’s interest in Gorkov and his bank was fundamentally about money:
At the time, Kushner had already spent months trying to arrange fresh financing for a troubled building his family owns, 666 Fifth Avenue.
After one of those meetings, Kislyak arranged a meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the powerful chief executive of a major Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, also known as VEB.
The U.S. had imposed financial sanctions on VEB because of Russian President Vladimir Putin's military incursions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. (During this period the Russians were also meeting with Flynn, Trump's incoming national security adviser.)
On this view, Kushner was perhaps interested in a dialogue about lifting American sanctions on Russian financial institutions and, in exchange, securing investment from those institutions in his family’s troubled real estate deals.
The biggest Trump/Russia story may be out in the open
Whatever happened behind closed doors in Trump Tower back in December, it’s worth recalling the events that played out quite publicly this week in Brussels.
On May 24, Trump’s national security advisors — who, with Flynn gone, overwhelmingly have conventional American views on Russia and NATO — gave the New York Times a heads-up that Trump’s speech at the NATO conference in Brussels would affirm his commitment to the alliance’s core guarantee of collective security.
Then when it came time to give the speech, Trump didn’t do that.
His advisors later turned around and insisted that, of course, the United States remains committed to the North Atlantic Treaty and its critical Article V pledging that an attack on any NATO member will be regarded as an attack on all NATO members. And, in reality, that is a legally binding treaty obligation of the United States whether Trump likes it or not. The fact of the matter is, however, that these same advisors believed they had talked Trump into making a public affirmation of this and then he refused to do it.
To undermine NATO in this way has, of course, been a core goal of Russian (and, earlier, Soviet) foreign policy as long as NATO has existed. And through all the ups and downs of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, Russia has never scored a success on that front as striking as Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency and his continued refusal to affirm that the United States will defend its allies. Why exactly Trump won’t do that remains a mystery, but the conduct itself is striking — in some ways all the more so because it involves Trump overruling the professional opinion of his own aides in favor of a different, more Russia-friendly line.