The White House is again defending itself against allegations made in news reports, this time concerning the Washington Post’s story on Friday that President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – who currently serves as the President’s senior adviser – met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December to discuss establishing back channel communications between the transition team and the Kremlin.
At his daily press briefing on Tuesday, Sean Spicer deflected questions about the latest revelations, saying, “What your question assumes is a lot of facts that are not substantiated by anything but anonymous sources.”
Even when asked about President Trump’s retweet a few hours earlier of a Fox News report about how Kushner and Kislyak discussed a back channel, a story that quoted anonymous sources, Spicer responded, “I’m not going to get into confirming stuff; there’s an ongoing investigation.”
The Cipher Brief asked former Acting and Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell to give his assessment of this latest news report.
The Cipher Brief: Put this controversy over Jared Kushner’s contacts with Russian officials during the transition in context. Contacts between foreign officials and an incoming administration are common. What makes this different?
Michael Morell: Let me say right up front that I look at this issue – Kushner’s contacts with the Russians – as well as the broader issue of Trump associates’ contacts with the Russians from the perspective of an intelligence analyst. When I do that, there are a couple of important caveats with which I have to start. The first is that we do not fully understand the facts. For the most part – and please stay with me here – what we, the public, know is what the media has reported, that unnamed former and current government officials have told them what the Russians said to each other about what happened in meetings with Trump associates. That is not a sourcing chain in which I would put a great deal of confidence. I spent a career watching the media get a significant portion of intelligence-related stories wrong. So, the bottom line: we should all be very careful in saying what is a fact on which to base analysis here. The real facts may be different.
The second caveat is that we all need to be careful not to draw overarching conclusions from one data point – even if we think that data point is correct – or, even more importantly, we need to be careful that we don’t over-connect the dots. This latter point is particularly important. There are essentially two types of intelligence failures – One, under connecting the dots, not seeing what is there (Japan’s intent to attack Pearl Harbor is the best example) and two, over connecting the dots, seeing things that really are not there (Iraq WMD being the classic example). There are so many “facts” in the public domain now that many people are connecting them in a way that has them concluding the Trump campaign must have been guilty of conspiring with the Russians in a way that would be a violation of the law. It is way too early to come to that conclusion.
TCB: What did you first think when you heard Kushner allegedly was setting up a back channel for communications with Russia. What significance does the location – at Russian diplomatic facilities – hold?
MM: First, let me just say that I think “back-channel” is the wrong term. I know everyone is using it, but it is not quite right. Both the Washington Post, which broke the story, and the New York Times in its initial story said that Kushner – along with then National Security Advisor Designate Michael Flynn – met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak for the purpose of setting up a “secret channel” for Flynn to talk to the Russians about Syria and other issues. That is not a back channel. That is a “front channel” – the incoming national security advisor talking with the Russian government. Why does it matter what we call it? Because somehow, “back channel” has a more nefarious connotation than “front channel.”
When I heard the initial story, I had a few reactions:
–This is as much about Flynn as it is about Kushner. Flynn was in the meeting. The media story is focused on Kushner because he is still a senior advisor to the President, while Flynn is not.
–Reaching out to the Russians during the transition is not necessarily a crime. It may be bad policy, but it is not necessarily a crime. I thought “Okay, something else to be investigated, but certainly not a smoking gun.” Whether a crime was committed, of course, depends entirely on the intent of the outreach and on what was discussed and decided – all of which we do not know with any degree of certainty.
–I wanted, and still want, to know two things: One, why the request for secrecy? Why the request for the use of the Russian Embassy’s secure communications? There are potential answers to those questions that would leave me saying “Okay, I understand. It was not smart to ask, but I get it and it is okay.” And there are potential answers to those questions that would leave me saying, “Put that at the top of the FBI’s list.” And two, was the Kushner/Flynn outreach coordinated within the transition? Was the president-elect aware? Was the vice-president elect, then the head of the transition, aware? Were other senior members of the transition aware? There is a big difference, in my mind, between a “yes” and a “no” on these questions.
But, most important, I said to myself that I am much more interested in what Trump’s associates, including Kushner, said to the Russians before the election than I am after the election – because I want to know if anyone in the Trump camp conspired with the Russians in their interference in our election. In fact, I’m primarily interested in the latter with regard to how it informs the former.
TCB: Why would Kushner even attempt to set up a back channel?
MM: I don’t know. It might be completely benign – “Let’s talk about how we can better coordinate our approaches to Syria.” But, it also might be malign – something with an implicit message that made clear, “Given the help you gave us over the years, it is now time for us to help you.”
TCB: Is it possible the Russians were using this as an opportunity to manipulate or misinform the incoming Trump team? If so, what precautions should U.S. officials have taken to counter such an attempt?
MM: Of course. The Russians do that with nearly every significant foreign official they meet, and transition officials would be no different in this regard from currently serving U.S. government officials. The best precaution is not not to talk to them. The best precaution is to be aware of their influence efforts, to be careful in your conversations, and to be willing to share your exact conversation with people in the government who pay attention to Russian influence efforts (if you think that has happened to you).
TCB: Former CIA Director Mike Hayden said “this was off the map.” Do you agree?
MM: I don’t know what Mike meant by that, but I assume he was talking about the request for secrecy. If so, I will just repeat what I said earlier. That is the key piece of this of which we need to have a much better understanding and a piece of this that needs further investigation.
By the way, I do think that there are four broad areas that need to be investigated with regard to Trump and the Russians. I hope Bob Mueller, the new Special Counsel, is looking at all of these issues.
- First, did anyone in the Trump camp conspire with the Russians in Moscow’s interference in our election? Did they knowingly assist the Russians in that effort? If so, did Trump know about it at the time or did he learn about it later and take steps to cover it up? And, if so, did the Trump folks promise a softer U.S. approach to Russia as a quid pro quo?
- Second, did Russian organized crime launder money through the Trump Organization? If so, was anyone in the Trump Organization aware of that? If so, was Trump himself aware? And, if so, was the soft approach to Russian during the campaign and the transition a quid pro quo? If the money laundering occurred and the Trump Organization was not aware, should they have been? In other words, did the Trump Organization do the due diligence that is required of them by law to have an understanding of where foreign money is coming from?
- Third, is anyone who is serving in the Trump Administration, particularly someone who has access to classified information, a witting agent of Russian intelligence? And, if so, are they now working to advance Russian rather than U.S. interests – either by providing classified information to Moscow or by pushing for U.S. policies that Moscow wants?
- And, fourth, did the President obstruct justice when he reportedly asked for Jim Comey’s loyalty, when he reportedly asked Comey to back off the Flynn investigation, or when he fired Comey?
All of these are huge questions that need to be answered. Certainly, it is really hard to understand what circumstance would lead the President-elect’s team to be perfectly comfortable being utterly transparent with the Russians, so much so that they ask our long-time enemy for help, hiding whatever they are doing from the U.S. Government. Sure sounds suspect, if it’s true.
But, my overall point in our conversation here today is that we should not jump to conclusions on any of this. We should let the Special Counsel do his work and come to a conclusion. We should not let the media take us to a conclusion.
TCB: If you agree, do you think this was a result of Kushner’s lack of experience, naiveté, something more nefarious?
MM: Again, I don’t know. And it is the significance of the spectrum you just outlined that means this requires further investigation. There is one aspect of the request that I found odd – simply asking Kisylak to be the middle man between Flynn and the Russian military would have accomplished the same goal, as the Embassy would have used its secure communications channels to report those conversations. So, naiveté is not out of the question.
TCB: Former NSA Michael Flynn, a long time intelligence official, was reportedly with Kushner. Doesn’t that rule naiveté out?
MM: Again, hard to say. Possibly yes, for obvious reasons – Flynn should know better, right? But possibly no – possibly Kushner raised the secure communications idea out of naiveté, and Flynn did not want to correct him in front of Kisylak. If so, bad decision by Flynn.
TCB: You mentioned the media. Can you elaborate?
MM: Sure. I do think that Trump’s performance as President has been quite poor. But, I do think that the President is right to say there is a bias among some in the media. I see it everyday when I read the papers and see how things are being reported. And, I think this is a big deal.
You know when Hugo Chavez was first elected President in Venezuela in 1998, there was no political opposition of which to speak. The opposition was in disarray. There was no opposition leader to stand up and provide an alternative vision to that being pursued by Chavez. In its place, the Venezuelan media became the political opposition. And, in so doing, the media lost its credibility with the Venezuelan people. It was a huge loss for Venezuela.
That is a risk right here in America, right now. I believe that objective, fact-based journalism has never been as important as it is today to the future of our democracy. But, in order to be effective, journalists cannot take sides or even appear to take sides. It is only about our future.