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Damage control over Jared Kushner’s reported Russia communication hasn’t quelled criticism

May 29, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Several top Trump administration officials have come out defending senior adviser Jared Kushner after it was reported that he had discussed with the Russian ambassador the possibility of opening a secret communication backchannel between the Trump team and Russia. William Brangham gets perspective from former CIA officer John Sipher and former FBI agent Frank Montoya, Jr.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Now to the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, and whether the Trump campaign was in any way involved, may have taken a step closer to the president’s own family.

It was another weekend of damage control for the Trump White House, this following allegations against President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that, in December, Kushner discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the possibility of opening a secret and secure communications channel between the Trump team and Moscow.

It adds, they considered using Russian diplomatic sites in the U.S. in order to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.

Several top administration officials, while not confirming the allegations, have come out defending Kushner.

Yesterday, on ABC’s “This Week,” Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said that the idea didn’t bother him.

JOHN KELLY, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary: It’s 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.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Separately, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters he too wasn’t concerned. He said: “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries.”

And on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioned the allegations altogether.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: I don’t trust this story as far as I can throw it. The whole storyline is suspicious. I have never been more concerned and suspicious about all things Russia than I am right now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For his part, the president told The New York Times on Sunday he has total confidence in his son-in-law.

All this, however, has done little to quell the storm of criticism. Former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin told MSNBC he was shocked by the charges.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, Former Acting CIA Director: I can’t keep out of my mind the thought that if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we’d consider it espionage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And back on ABC’s “This Week,” California Democrat Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Kushner’s access to classified material needs to be reexamined.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.: But I do think there ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid. If not then, there’s no way he can maintain that kind of a clearance.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Before these latest allegations broke, Kushner’s attorneys said he’d work with the Senate on its investigation into Russian election meddling. Yesterday, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Tennessee Republican Bob Corker said Kushner will still cooperate.

With me now to discuss the Kushner allegations, and the wider Russia probe, are two men with deep knowledge of intelligence and law enforcement.

Frank Montoya Jr. spent 26 years in the FBI. He oversaw national security and counterintelligence probes. He joins us from Salt Lake City. And John Sipher served 28 years in the CIA’s clandestine service stationed in Russia and Eastern Europe. He also ran counterintelligence investigations within the agency. He’s now with the consulting firm CrossLead.

Welcome to you both.

John Sipher, I would like to start with you.

What is your reaction to this? You said to me earlier that this leak, this particular leak, is different from other leaks. How so?

JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Officer: What strikes me about this which is so unusual is, this is really putting hyperpartisanship. It’s putting party above country.

It’s trusting a hostile foreign government more than you trust the duly elected government that is in power at the time. And what’s also unusual about this, I think, is many of these leaks, as frustrating as they probably are to the administration, don’t strike to the heart of the investigation.

This one sounds like it may do so, because it highlights a sensitive collection effort, if, in fact, true, and also it looks like it gives some information on some of the things we have been seeing around the edges for months now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Frank Montoya, turning to you, what is your reaction to all this?

I mean, you heard the administration’s defenders, the national security adviser, many people arguing this is nothing, nothing to see here, please move on. What is your reaction?

FRANK MONTOYA JR., Former FBI Agent: John is spot on. I think some of the other aspects of this, we get track two kind of communications or diplomacy or however you want to call these, whether it’s a back-channel access to a government, but that’s usually when you are the government in power, having that communication with another government.

What really stands out to me in this one is the discussion, if true, as John noted, about using a foreign nation state’s communications system, especially like a foreign nation state like Russia.

It’s just — I think a term used this past weekend about either being incredibly naive or absolutely crazy. I would say stupid is more like it in terms of just the thought process that had to occur if, in fact, that was the discussion.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John, you heard Frank mention this, the idea that, again, if these allegations are true, that Kushner asked the Russians, can we use your facilities, your hardware to have these communications?

Why is that particularly troubling?

JOHN SIPHER: This is a very sophisticated adversary.

The notion that we would go and work with them inside their embassy, this is something that just is beyond the pale for professionals. And it almost is, if you want to assume this is naivete by the Trump campaign and Mr. Kushner, it really is like lambs going in to do with the lions here. This is a very dangerous thing.

People who deal with the Russians in the government follow a whole series of procedures and regulations to avoid concerns of espionage and subversion and corruption. And it doesn’t appear that they did here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you think that there is another rational explanation for this, that, perhaps as some of Kushner’s supporters have said, they genuinely wanted to talk to the Russians about Syria and other matters, and this was just maybe a poorly chosen vehicle for having those conversations?

JOHN SIPHER: It’s possible, but like Frank said, then very stupid.

Perhaps there’s naivete here. Having a back channel is something that governments have done in the past, and there is nothing wrong with it. But my question would be, why the secrecy? The president-elect had been talking about changing the relationship with Russia for quite a long time.

There would be no need to go to this effort to try to hide from your own government what you’re doing.

FRANK MONTOYA JR.: Yes, if I could add to that, William, this is also demonstrating a gross distrust or mistrust of his own intelligence community.

If that’s what he wanted to do, we could have facilitated that for him. Even as president-elect, moving into the inauguration and beyond, when he becomes the government, this is what we do for our presidents.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I know you talk with a lot of agents, some of them who might be in the midst of this actual investigation.

What do these ongoing leaks mean to them, do to them, do to their ability to do their jobs?

FRANK MONTOYA JR.: Yes, from a day-to-day perspective, it makes it incredibly difficult.

Who they going to be able to talk that is going to want to tell them the straight story, if it’s — the fear is, it’s going to show up on a news channel or on cable or on the Internet?

And so, yes, it really does make it difficult to dig into the matters that need to be addressed and, you know, to put together the pieces of the puzzle that will get us to the end of this thing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But couldn’t you also argue that there is a societal benefit, that we — it’s useful for people to know what their government is up to?

FRANK MONTOYA JR.: Yes, that’s one of the conundrums right now.

This started out anyway as a counterintelligence investigation. It’s become public. There are aspects of this, I think, that are really important. When you look at it from a historical context, for instance, one of the key sources in the Watergate issue was an FBI special agent.

And so individuals that have information, if there is concern that it may — that things are not going the way that they should be or they are not going to be able to make the case, could that be a reason for these leaks, at least to get the information out there to address initiatives beyond an operation or a source or a method, but actually involves the security of the republic?

Yes, I can see why people would think that way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John, did you want to add to that?

JOHN SIPHER: Just want to add one thing.

A lot of these leaks, there’s sort of talk around this that there’s a deep state of people in the law enforcement and intelligence community that are trying to undermine the president.

And I want to make it clear, from my understanding, is, I don’t think that’s the case. There are a lot of leaks here, but like many leaks in this town, they tend to come from the White House or Congress or people who are back-briefed on pieces of information.

And when that comes out, that’s very frustrating. But I have seen very little that looks like it’s come out with the kind of detail that is coming from the professionals in the FBI or the CIA, the information that is behind this look.

So, frustrating, yes, but, so far, I don’t think this stuff is the professionals are trying to undermine the administration in any way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, John Sipher, Frank Montoya, thank you both very much.

JOHN SIPHER: Thanks.

FRANK MONTOYA JR.: You bet. Thank you.

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