New Kushner-Russia Story Stokes Concern of West Wing Leakers
An energized Trump returns to a White House where top staff are looking over their shoulders
Another Washington Post anonymously sourced hit job dropped on the Trump White House — this one about Jared Kushner asking the Russian ambassador for a “secret channel.” It landed just in time to greet the president upon his return from his first international trip and shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged to “put an end to” the rampant leaks coming from within the government. An administration plagued with leaks is now trying to determine whether recent damaging claims may have been fanned from within the West Wing.
The latest claim stems from a supposed meeting that President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had on Dec. 1 or 2 with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. According to The Washington Post, U.S. officials who reviewed intercepts between Kislyak and Moscow saw that Kushner requested "a secret [communications] channel with Moscow rather than relying on traditional government systems."
This alleged request by Kushner, the White House aide who conceived of and planned Mr. Trump's just-concluded, multi-country trip, "adds to a broader pattern of efforts by Trump's closest advisers to obscure their contacts with Russian counterparts."
Interestingly, The Washington Post apparently received its tip about this story through an anonymous letter it received in December — whose full contents the newspaper has not revealed. The letter stated, in part, that Kushner raised the issue with Kislyak about setting up the secure communications channel. It also discussed "arranging a meeting between a representative of Trump and a 'Russian contact' in a third country whose name was not identified," the newspaper reports.
Inside the West Wing, discovering and prosecuting those responsible for the constant drumbeat of leaks has become a top priority. While most of the focus has been on current U.S. intelligence personnel and former Obama administration officials, there is now increasing concern that some of the recent leaks involving Kushner could be coming directly from the West Wing.
A government source familiar with the Trump White House's inner circle put it this way: "It is sad there are so many insecure people in the West Wing, who don't care about serving their country or pushing the president's agenda." When pressed about the identity of this "insecure person," the source demurred. "Instead, they are solely focused on themselves and planting false stories, to put targets on other people's backs, to shift attention from their own records."
"They are solely focused on themselves and planting false stories, to put targets on other people's backs, to shift attention from their own records."
Rumors of a major White House staff shake-up have been swirling in Washington almost since the first week after the inauguration. Multiple reports from both establishment and conservative media outlets have detailed Trump's at times intense dissatisfaction with his communications staff.
Others have focused on the antagonistic "camps" of staffers that have formed inside the West Wing: the "nationalists" (White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and speechwriter Stephen Miller) versus the "Democrats" (Kushner and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council). Priebus has attempted to straddle both factions, with reports mounting since February of his imminent departure.
When Gary Cohn was asked about the recent Kushner-Russia story Saturday during their appearance at the G-7 summit in Italy, he replied, "We're not going to comment on Jared." National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster essentially gave the same response, adding, "We have back-channel communications with a number of countries."
Who stands to benefit from incessant Kushner leaks? According to Axios, the man whose job security has been a matter of constant speculation: Steve Bannon.
Nine sources in the West Wing and within Trump's close orbit said the Russia situation is Bannon's shot at redemption. He's being described as a "wartime consigliere" relishing a fight against the "deep state," media, Democrats, and investigators.
In April, the relationship between Bannon and Kushner was at a low point. "Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon Battle for the Soul of Trump," blared a headline in The Atlantic.
Still, any major staff shake-up or even a high-level resignation is risky as special counsel Robert Mueller ramps up his Russia investigation, and Capitol Hill is anxious to talk to witnesses.
Through all the media hyperventilation and West Wing intrigue, one thing is abundantly clear: President Trump has no patience for leaking. "The alleged leaks coming out of government agencies are deeply troubling," he said in the wake of the Manchester bombing — and Britain is outraged that details of the investigation had leaked to press outlets by American officials. He vowed to prosecute the leaks "to the fullest extent of the law."