Politics & Policy

The Alleged Kushner–Kislyak Meeting: Amateur Hour May Be Worse Than ‘Collusion’

Kushner (center) attends a Cabinet meeting in March. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
If the anonymously sourced reports are true, the meeting was foolish and shows that the president’s closest adviser is out of his depth.

The Putin regime is hostile to the United States. Donald Trump’s infatuation with forging an alliance with Russia (much like his infatuation with crafting a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians whose objective is to destroy Israel) has always struck me as reckless, occasionally repugnant, and always hopelessly naïve. Similarly naïve, and obnoxious to the American tradition of resisting royalty, is President Trump’s reliance in major matters of policy on his son-in-law and daughter, two young people who have little if any experience in many of their swelling areas of responsibility.

Put another way, would Jared Kushner be a key senior policy adviser to any president of the United States other than his father-in-law?

The two streams of naïveté collided in December 2016.

Kushner, then 36 and the scion of a wealthy family, is well educated and acquainted with the hardball ways of the New York real-estate business and newspaper publishing. He has no national-security or diplomatic experience, however, but was nonetheless chosen to represent the then-president-elect at a Trump Tower meeting with Russia’s ambassador the United States. That would be Sergey Kislyak, a wily Soviet-apparatchik-turned-Putin-operative, who has been at the game of picking America’s pocket for longer than Kushner has been alive. Retired general Michael Flynn, who was slated to become Trump’s national-security adviser, was also at the meeting. On the agenda was the establishment of a back channel for Trump-administration dealings with the Kremlin. In particular, according to the New York Times, the Trump transition team wanted Flynn to have access to a Russian counterpart to discuss Syria and other issues of mutual interest.

In principle, as stressed by Trump national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, there is nothing wrong with the concept of back channels. All administrations use them. See, for instance, John Hinderaker’s report on President Obama’s establishment of a back channel with the Iranian regime in 2008, when it was already clear Obama would be the next president and when his pre-inauguration signaling to the mullahs undermined the Bush administration, just as the Obama administration no doubt felt undermined by Trump’s transition outreach to Putin. The United States and Russia are global competitors with large nuclear arsenals and some important mutual interests. It is often desirable for adversaries to maintain open lines for frank communication beneath all of their public posturing. Obama certainly seemed to think so when, in his infamous hot-mic mishap, he beseeched Putin factotum Dmitry Medvedev to let Vlad know he’d have “more flexibility” to accommodate Russia on missile defense after the 2012 election was over.

Until last fall, national-security conservatives were ridiculed for agitating about Russia. So it is with back channels, which the media-Democrat complex were not bothered by until a Republican was elected president. To be sure, the structure of the back channel that Kushner undertook to forge is troubling — if, that is, the reporting about it is accurate. That reporting, it must be noted,is based on anonymous Washington Post sources, whom the New York Times has said its own anonymous sources have not been able to corroborate.

If there had been a close working relationship between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime, then why would it have been necessary to set up a back channel in December?

Let’s table that momentarily, though, because there are positives for Trump in the details of this story.

Most notably, the Kushner–Kislyak meeting occurred in December 2016, weeks after the election. If there had been a close working relationship between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime — a working relationship that purportedly amounted to collusion in Russia’s attempts to influence the outcome of the election — then why would it have been necessary to set up a back channel in December? The secret lines of communication would already have been up and running for months. And they would certainly have been known to Kushner, Trump’s closest adviser; apparently, despite his sparse policy résumé, the “young princeling,” as West Wing rivals have taken to describing him, has been given every portfolio, from the holy grail of Middle East peace to the reinvention of the sprawling, $4.1 trillion per annum U.S. government.

Moreover, although the Trump Tower meeting has long been known to the FBI, the collusion-obsessed media concede that Kushner is not the “target” or “subject” of an investigation. To say that this concession is grudging does not do justice to the despicable coverage, which, to repeat, is based on anonymous leaking of classified information. (If you’re keeping score, that’s an actual crime, unlike anything Kushner appears to have done.) The media’s suggestion is that while Kushner is not currently in handcuffs, it is probably just a matter of time.

To the contrary, as we at National Review have been trying to get across for weeks: The main part of the “collusion with Russia” investigation is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. (See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) As I’ve explained in another context, “target” and “subject” are terms of art in criminal investigations, referring to persons whose actions are being probed by a grand jury with an eye toward, respectively, the high likelihood or strong possibility of indictment. These terms are inapposite to a counterintelligence investigation. The point of a counterintelligence probe is not to build a criminal case but to discern and counter the intentions and actions of a foreign power, to the extent they threaten American interests. The only thing close to a “subject” in a counterintelligence investigation involving Russia would be . . . Russia.

All that said, it would be entirely appropriate for the FBI to conduct such an investigation if, as we’ve previously observed, there were reasonable suspicions that Russia was trying to intrude on the election process, including if it was attempting to make inroads with one campaign or another. If there were such good-faith suspicions, there would be nothing untoward in the FBI’s examining contacts between people attached to a presidential campaign and suspected Kremlin operatives.

Even if there were such contacts, that would not mean the campaign surrogates had done anything wrong or violated any laws. It is not a crime to have meetings with Russians, to do business with Russians, or even to discuss an ongoing American election campaign with Russians. There is a long history of Democrats doing all those things. Even if Trump-campaign officials had known about and encouraged Russian interference with the U.S. election (a proposition for which there is currently no publicly known evidence), that would not be a crime unless some action the Russians were taking was illegal and the campaign officials did something hands-on to aid and abet it.

Of course, as I have argued before, the fact that collusive activity would probably not be illegal does not mean it would be appropriate. To my mind, it would be impeachable. (Again, impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” are violations of the public trust and need not be indictable criminal offenses.)

The salient point, however, is that a counterintelligence investigation frequently scrutinizes the activities of Americans, like Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, who cross paths with operatives of the foreign power that is the focus of the investigation, like the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That is a big part of why counterintelligence investigations are classified.

They are supposed to be secret. Because the Americans are not criminal suspects, it would be slanderous to identify them — as Kushner has been identified — as a “person of interest in,” or as “a focus of,” an FBI investigation. As is well known to the experienced journalists saying such things about Kushner, they are stigmatizing him as a suspected criminal in the public mind. Just as the federal courts have cooked up a new jurisprudence of Trump, in which actions that would be validated if taken by other presidents are infirm when taken by him, so too do the media suspend the rules of responsible journalism because they’ve decided Trump is a charlatan, and thus everyone around him is fair game — you know, because “democracy dies in darkness.”

The shame of it in this instance is that the facts may be quite bad enough — even the partisan press should not need to exaggerate them into something criminal. If the Post’s version of events is true, Kushner not only tried to set up a back channel to Russia but suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities as the pipeline. The Post claims that, according to anonymous “U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports” (i.e., officials feloniously leaking classified information), this is what Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow. The apparent objective was to insulate communications between the Trump transition team and Russian operatives from monitoring by American intelligence agencies.

The Kremlin’s goal is to sow confusion and instability that paralyze our government’s ability to pursue American interests. And man, oh man, is it working like a charm in this case.

Again, we do not know whether this, in fact, happened. Times reporters have not been able to confirm it, and you know they’d love nothing more. The Times reports that, regardless of whether it was discussed, there is thus far no indication that such a back channel was ever established. On Sunday, Fox News’s Chris Wallace reported that his own unidentified Trump-administration source maintains that it was Kislyak, not Kushner, who proposed the back channel for consultations on Syria — and Wallace’s source, too, stresses that the “secure link” was never set up. Meanwhile, even the Post’s own account points out that old Russian hands like Kislyak are notorious for feeding false information into channels they suspect American spies are monitoring. The Kremlin’s goal, we must always bear in mind, is to sow confusion and instability that paralyze our government’s ability to pursue American interests. And man, oh man, is it working like a charm in this case.

But if there is truth to the Post’s account, it would be hard to quantify how galactically stupid making such a proposal to Kislyak would be, although former Bush CIA director Mike Hayden has tried: “Off the map,” he said Saturday.

Let’s stipulate that Kushner, Flynn, and Team Trump had good reason to believe they had lots of enemies in the so-called community of U.S. intelligence agencies — a community politicized by Obama plants, whose leaks have been fueling the “collusion with Russia” narrative since the fall campaign. It would nevertheless be the height of foolishness for Trump transition officials to believe that their discussions with Russian operatives would remain secret from American intelligence. Nor could anything good could have come from an arrangement in which Trump officials put themselves at the tender mercies of Putin’s regime. Russia, to put it mildly, does not have America’s or Trump’s interests at heart. The Kremlin would be certain to humiliate Trump and Kushner by publicly disclosing the talks (or a distorted version of them) the moment doing so seemed expedient.

Whether or not the worst aspects of the Post’s account are true, it appears that this is exactly what the Kremlin has done. Kushner put himself in position to let Kislyak embarrass him. Kushner made himself vulnerable to media-Democrat speculation that he wanted secret dealings with Russia because Trump was was having shady dealings with Russia.

Forget election collusion and potential criminality. These suggestions, no matter how tirelessly made, appear unsupported by any concrete evidence. Nevertheless, the Kushner–Kislyak meeting, at best, is amateur hour. Given the trouble that Russia can make (and has made) for the United States, it is yet more cause for bewilderment over Trump’s strange blandishments toward the Putin regime.

Yes, there are clearly Obama sieves in the administrative state who delight in politically wounding the Trump administration. There is also no shortage of patriots in our intelligence agencies who know that Russia is a threat and wonder what on earth the Trump brain trust is thinking.


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