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Washington Post reporter: Russian ambassador ‘taken aback’ by Kushner’s back channel request

May 27, 2017 at 6:03 PM EDT
The Washington Post reported Friday that President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, proposed a secret, secure back channel to the Kremlin in a conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Kushner's lawyer said he will cooperate with the FBI's investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Greg Miller, one of the reporters who broke the story, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss it.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: According to stories published in the past 24 hours by “The Washington Post,” “The New York Times” and “Reuters”, president Trump’s son- in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, made an unusual proposal to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. after Mr. Trump won the election. The newspaper says last December, Kushner sought to establish a back channel to the Kremlin by using secure communications inside a Russian embassy or consulate in the U.S. Those discussions are now reportedly a subject of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into administration relationships with Russia and Russian meddling in the election.

“The Washington Post’s” Greg Miller is one of the reporters who broke this story last night, and he joins me now from Washington to discuss it.

Greg, first off, was what Jared Kushner did illegal?

GREG MILLER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think the idea of setting up a channel to talk with Russia may not be. It depends on what was discussed. We ran into this with the case of Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser. He had a discussion with the Russian ambassador that really technically he was raising subjects and talking about things that would break the law, but it happened to be a law that’s 200 years old that has never been enforced. So, we might be in similar territory here.

SREENIVASAN: This was a meeting that was kind of initially if not denied not brought to light.

MILLER: Yes. I mean, this is the latest in a series of cases in which the White House has had many, many months to be up front about what happened, when these meetings happened, what was said in these meetings, and they’re always acknowledging them only after they’re exposed in the press. What we’re learning now is a very important development, that Kushner and Kislyak were actually discussing the setting up of a secret channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow, and, in fact, were discussing using Russian communications gear to accomplish that. That’s what’s really remarkable.

SREENIVASAN: Let’s get to how we know that was said.

MILLER: This was learned about only after Kislyak, the Russian ambassador leaves that meeting, and he’s reporting back to Moscow what has transpired. This is what we talked about. His communications with Moscow, they are under surveillance. They are intercepted, and this is how the U.S. intelligence picked up on what was discussed in this meeting with Kushner.

SREENIVASAN: How do we know that Sergey Kislyak was being honest to his superiors?

MILLER: Well, we don’t know for sure. Russian officials and intelligence operatives will often push falsehoods into communications channels that they know the United States is monitoring, just to sow confusion.

But in this case, it’s hard to imagine what the motive would have been for Kislyak to mischaracterize his conversation with Kushner in this way. In fact, Kislyak seemed taken aback by this request, based on how he’s relaying this to Moscow. He can’t really believe, why would they want to do this? Why are they asking for this? It seems strange to him.

It doesn’t really fit in with him sort of exaggerating his relationship with Kushner or at that time really trying to — what would be the point of putting Kushner in a vulnerable position this way?

SREENIVASAN: You know, one of the tidbits in your story is that “The Post” was first alerted of this in mid-December. Why did it take so long for this information to be published now?

MILLER: My colleague Ellen Nakashima got an anonymous letter in December. It just arrived in her mailbox at “The Post.” And she shared it with us and we looked through it.

It described things that were happening in Trump Tower in the transition at that time. One of the things it mentioned was that there was a meeting, Kushner, Kislyak, Flynn, and that this idea of setting up a secret channel was discussed.

Now, we had — there was no name attached to this. We had no idea who sent it. There was no way for us to get back in touch with whoever had done so. And so, it just basically took a long time for us to get corroboration.

When you get a letter like that, it can help guide your reporting, but it doesn’t amount to sourcing that you can really use for a story. You have to get people, other people, other sources to corroborate what’s in that message.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things that possibly took this story so long to publish on a Friday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend, what did the White House say about this?

MILLER: Yes, well, I mean, to us the White House said very little ultimately. You saw in our story, it said that the White House declined to comment. That wasn’t for lack of trying. There was a lot of back and forth with the White House on this story, with Kushner’s representatives, and, you know, there was fair amount said there. They were unwilling to share any of that with us on the record or allow us to attribute it to even White House officials.

SREENIVASAN: Jared Kushner’s lawyer has said before this story published that they are willing to cooperate with the FBI. Is this what the FBI is planning to ask him about?

MILLER: Oh, I’m certain that the FBI is deeply interested in Kushner’s meetings with Russians on multiple occasions and having presumably the U.S. intelligence community has brought this to the attention of the FBI, what Kislyak has relayed back to Moscow. I’m sure that the FBI is keenly interested in learning why was it, Mr. Kushner, that you felt it necessary to set up a secret channel with Moscow that the U.S. government would not have been able to listen to?

SREENIVASAN: All right. The article in “The Washington Post” has three bylines. Yours is one of them. Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous as well worked on this.

Greg Miller from “The Washington Post” — thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.