The long Memorial Day weekend didn't give the embattled Trump administration a break from a cascade of new leaks and diplomatic skirmishes that threatened to once again throw Trump’s presidency into a tailspin.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, twice tried to set up direct ties to Russia, once using Russia’s own channels and another using a close Putin confidant. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, publicly told off Putin in a highly anticipated meeting that further brought France and Germany together while calling new and unwelcome attention to Trump’s continuing pro-Russian statements. And one of Trump’s top loyalists, Michael Cohen, is now a major focus of the congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time for Trump. He just got back from his first foreign trip as president that garnered some positive reviews but mostly didn’t achieve its goals.
As Trump settled back home, he had to deal with these new developments. And, based on their severity, he will continue to have to deal with them for quite some time.
If you were off barbecuing and/or honoring the fallen this weekend instead of following the news, don’t worry; we’ve got you covered. Below is a quick recap of the weekend’s top Trump-Russia-related stories.
Kushner, on two occasions, tried to get really, really close to Russia
It turns out that Jared Kushner made at least two other attempts to connect the incoming Trump administration to the Putin regime.
The Washington Post reports that on December 1 or 2, 2016, at Trump Tower, Kushner asked Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak if the new administration could set up a “secret and secure communications channel” with the Russian government. But instead of using US facilities, Kushner suggested employing Russian ones.
Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser (later fired because he lied about his conversations with Kislyak), was at the meeting.
On the surface, this isn’t that weird. As the Post notes, the US government has plenty of ways to set up under-the-radar conversations with foreign governments. And in many ways, it makes sense to set up something along these lines. For example, to get the nuclear deal done, the Obama administration held a private “backchannel” in Oman to get nuclear negotiations with Iran going while avoiding any negative publicity. Even many parts of the US government were unaware those talks were happening.
But what does make this news so unusual is that the secret channel was requested by a presidential transition team, one headed by a president-elect who wanted to be very close to Russia. The Post story makes clear that it is an unusual move for people not yet in office to have these kinds of communications. And since Russia is the country behind the attempt to influence our presidential election, trusting them in this way is ... odd.
That said, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said that “any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing.” So clearly the administration either doesn't mind Kushner’s covert activities or is willing to spin aggressively on his behalf.
If this were a one-off event to get directly in touch with Russia, maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal. However, Kushner did it again.
The New York Times found that back in March, Kushner spoke with Russian financier Sergey N. Gorkov of Vnesheconombank, one of Russia’s most important banks. The goal of the half-hour meeting was “to establish a direct line to Mr. Putin outside of established diplomatic channels,” per the article.
There are two things to note about this. First, Gorkov is close to Putin. Here they are shaking hands below.
Second, Vnesheconombank “has also been used by Russian intelligence to plant spies in the United States,” notes the Times. In March 2016, a Russian spy was caught pretending to be an employee of that bank in New York City.
So let’s recap. Kushner wanted to use Russian communications equipment and facilities to set up a secret channel with the Kremlin. He also tried to set up a direct link with Putin via a close associate of the Russian leader, who happens to also be a top official at a bank that plants spies in America.
Now we know the Russia story doesn’t just affect the White House. It directly affects Trump’s family — in the most The Americans of ways. Stay tuned, because this development shows that the Russia stuff is not “fake news,” no matter the president’s beliefs.
Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2017
New French President Emmanuel Macron takes a tough stance on Putin
While America gets closer to Russia, France is pulling further away.
The BBC reports Putin and Macron held a “frank exchange” in their first tete-a-tete yesterday. The discussion, which took place at the Versailles palace near Paris, led to the airing of some major differences.
One of them was on Syria, where Russia is helping the Assad regime remain in power while French- and US-backed forces try to remove him. As politicians do, they found some agreement to highlight in the press conference, namely how they wish to work more closely together to defeat ISIS. But the dynamics of the conflict are such that France and Russia are on opposite sides of the fight — and the conflict has no end in sight.
More importantly, Macron said that France would get more militarily involved if there are more chemical attacks in Syria. Recall that on April 4 Assad’s forces dropped chemical weapons that killed dozens of people, including children, to which Trump responded by firing 59 Tomahawk missiles on Assad’s base that launched the attack.
Macron’s statement, should he follow through on it, would also separate him from Obama’s (in)action. For Obama, chemical attacks were a “red line” that Assad could not cross lest US forces retaliate in Syria. When Assad did use chemical weapons to kill around 1,400 people in 2013, Obama chose not to attack, instead choosing to ask Congress for permission, which it did not grant him.
Anyway, the Macron-Putin meeting was also a little awkward because, well, Putin didn’t want Macron to win the election. Putin preferred Marine Le Pen, the far-right French nationalist who was Macron’s main challenger for the presidency. Trump wanted Le Pen to win also, even though he told Macron differently when they recently met. (Note: Trump and Macron have shared some epic handshakes.)
That Putin didn’t get his preferred victor already added some tension to the meeting. But the big oh-man moment was when Macron labeled Russian state-run media organizations as “propaganda.”
That’s a big deal. By calling out Putin’s propaganda machine for what it is, Macron publicly took steps to be more in line with German Chancellor Angela Merkel than Trump. In other words, Macron’s words indicate he will lean more toward the anti-Russia movement spearheaded by Merkel, leaving the US to cozy up to Russia on its own.
Perhaps it is because of the budding Trump-Russia connection that Merkel now feels Germany can no longer count on America as a reliable partner. If anything, Macron’s actions in the Putin meeting suggest the Franco-German alliance might only be getting stronger.
The Russia investigation is now focusing on Trump’s lawyer
The Russia investigation continues to center on more and more people in Trump’s inner circle. According to ABC News, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen is now a focus in the House and Senate investigations into Russia’s potential influence in the 2016 presidential election.
Basically, the investigations asked Cohen “to provide information and testimony” to them as part of the probes. He declined, telling ABC News that “the request was poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered.”
So Congress did something it doesn’t normally do — act. The Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously gave its chair, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the authority to issue subpoenas when he thinks it’s required.
This was one of those cases. But Cohen says he will not cooperate. The investigators “have yet to produce one single piece of credible evidence that would corroborate the Russia narrative," he claimed.
Cohen has been an interesting figure in the political life of Trump, known to some as the president’s “pit bull.” Last August, he famously repeated the phrase, “Says who?” any time CNN reporter Brianna Keilar mentioned that Trump was losing to Hillary Clinton.
In fairness to Cohen, Trump is president, and so his constant questioning of Keilar’s assertions now don’t look as ridiculous.
Cohen also went after the Daily Beast when the site reported about 1993 allegations — still unproven — in a book claiming that Trump raped his former wife Ivana.
Trump is a guy who likes loyalty, and Cohen is as loyal as they come. Should he be implicated in this Russia investigation, though, loyalty will have had its price for Cohen.
Things to watch for
These news items mean there are things worth keeping an eye on down the road. First, how much more is there to the Kushner-Russia story? If this is it, it’s still big, but it won’t be the star item of the investigation. But if there’s more, then expect to hear “impeachment” again.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the US-European alliance. Since World War II, the US and Europe have been, for the most part, inseparable, working together to achieve their mutual interests and promote democratic values. But now that France and Germany are openly calling out Putin and saying they can’t rely on America anymore, the stitches are starting to come undone.
It’s too early to say the alliance is dead. But if the cracks in the relationship keep getting wider, then the ramifications for US foreign policy and national security are staggering — and the Trump administration will be held accountable for the fallout.