Trump returns to Kushner-focused crisis that the White House is struggling trying to contain

The New York Times reports: Trump’s advisers were working to create a crisis-control communications operation within the White House to separate the Russia investigations and related scandals from the administration’s day-to-day themes and the work of governing, according to several people familiar with their plans and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the details of a still-evolving strategy.

Aides are talking about bringing Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, and David Bossie, his former deputy campaign manager, onto the White House staff to manage the war room.

Under the evolving scenario, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, would take a diminished public role, with daily on-camera briefings replaced by more limited interactions with journalists, while Mr. Trump would seize more opportunities to communicate directly with his core supporters through campaign rallies, social media appearances such as Facebook Live videos, and interviews with friendly news media outlets.

The president, who has more than 30 million followers on Twitter, has been told by his lawyers to limit his posts. Each one, they argue privately, could be used as evidence in a legal case against him, and the president went through his entire overseas trip without posting a single incendiary message.

Among those most adamant about limiting Mr. Trump’s access to the news media was Mr. Kushner, who has been critical internally of the White House press operation and has sought to marginalize Mr. Spicer, whom he views as too undisciplined to control the president’s message. Mr. Kushner has also favored creating a rapid-response team to counter reports like the ones that emerged on Friday [about Kushner].

In a move that many in the West Wing viewed as emblematic of his attempt to wrest control of communications from Mr. Spicer and Mr. Priebus, Mr. Kushner displaced an operations official from the office across the hall from his own and installed his personal spokesman, Josh Raffel, in his place, according to two people familiar with the matter. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Underscoring the uncertainty of what lies ahead, some Trump associates said there have been conversations about dispatching Priebus to serve as ambassador to Greece — his mother is of Greek descent — as a face-saving way to remove him from the White House. A White House spokeswoman strongly denied that possibility Saturday.

The president has expressed frustration — both publicly and privately — with his communications team, ahead of the expected overhaul.

Though no final decisions have been made, one option being discussed is having Spicer — who has been parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to devastating effect — take a more behind-the-scenes role and give up his daily, on-camera briefings.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, is being considered as a replacement behind the lectern and is likely to appear on camera more often in coming weeks. White House aides have also talked about having a rotating cast of staff brief the media, a group that could include officials such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Having several aides share the briefing responsibilities could help prevent Trump — who has a notoriously short attention span — from growing bored or angry with any one staffer. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner’s desire for a back channel to Russia seems to have led him to lie on his application for a security clearance

Ryan Koronowski writes: When he applied for his top-secret security clearance for his White House job, Kushner was required to disclose all meetings with foreign government officials over the previous seven years but omitted dozens of contacts — including this meeting [with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December at Trump Tower].

When questioned about it, his lawyers called it an error.

A top presidential aide simply forgetting a meeting such as this strains the bounds of credulity. As Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) noted, Kushner did not just omit the meeting once on his SF86 security clearance form. He also failed to include it again on his revised form, which Lieu argued would be two separate federal crimes. In a tweet, Lieu showed the certification that everyone must sign to get clearance, acknowledging the consequences that willful false statements can bring, including jail time.


Rep. Lieu called for Kushner to resign if the story is true, and said he should be prosecuted for lying on his security clearance form. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said Kushner’s clearance “must be revoked until we get to the bottom of this.”

Knowingly falsifying or concealing information on these forms can carry up to five years of jail time.

Malcolm Nance, a career counterintelligence officer, said on MSNBC Friday night that this kind of activity is indicative of espionage. [Continue reading…]

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Why would Jared Kushner trust Russian officials more than the U.S. government?

Adam Serwer writes: Why did Jared Kushner seemingly trust Russian officials more than he trusted the U.S. government?

Friday evening, The Washington Post broke the story that, according to an intercepted report by the Russian ambassador in Washington to his superiors in Moscow, Kushner sought to use secure communications facilities at the Russian Embassy to correspond directly with Russian officials. The Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, reported that the proposal was made in December, after Trump won the election but before he had taken office. The conversations reportedly involved Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security adviser who was fired after it was revealed that he lied to administration officials about the content of his conversations with Russian officials.

Although Kushner never used those facilities, former national-security officials said that for officials with access to classified information, entering foreign embassies is considered a security risk. The White House has not commented directly on the report. Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, a former Justice Department official with extensive national-security experience, has neither confirmed nor denied the report, but she has emphasized Kushner’s willingness to cooperate with ongoing investigations into the Trump team’s contacts with the Russians. If Kushner did in fact make the request, that alone would have put him in a compromising position, since Russian officials could have used it as leverage against him.

But what is also peculiar is the level of trust Kushner would have been placing in Russian officials in asking for such a communications channel. Foreign affairs is often complex, yet Kushner didn’t want the U.S. government’s help—or supervision.

“What is unusual and borderline disturbing about this is less that it cut out the State Department or cut out the intelligence community; I think there is a precedent for both of those things in back-channels,” said Jon Finer, former State Department chief of staff under John Kerry. “It shows a level of trust in Russian intelligence, and Russian diplomatic personnel beyond the level of trust afforded to American intelligence and American personnel.”

The White House has obliquely defended Kushner’s actions while refusing to comment on them specifically. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner,” National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters on Saturday. Asked whether it would be cause for concern if a National Security Council staffer used such a back-channel to Moscow, he said: “No, I would not be concerned about it.”

“What puts this in an entirely different category is that this is a transition; they weren’t in the government yet,” said Paul Pillar, a former analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency. “That’s really a departure. It’s normal for an incoming administration to have contacts with foreign leaders, but I can’t think of a precedent for this kind of thing.”

And former national-security officials noted that while back-channel communications are often compartmentalized—meaning they can only be viewed by a select number of officials—they usually have some level of involvement from national-security officials. Communicating with Moscow using Russian facilities could have shielded Kushner’s correspondence from U.S. intelligence agencies, without denying their Russian counterparts the same access.

“The only reason you would operate that way is if you were hiding something from your own government. That’s it. That’s the only plausible explanation,” said Nada Bakos, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former CIA analyst. [Continue reading…]

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Hayden on Kushner: We are in a dark place as a society

 

The Hill reports: Former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Hayden on Saturday said White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is naive and ignorant if reports that he sought to create a secure communication channel with Russia are true.

“Well, Michael, right now, I’m going with naiveté and that’s not particularly very comforting for me,” Hayden told CNN’s Michael Smerconish.

“I mean what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or appropriate idea?” [Continue reading…]

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When the feds come knocking on Kushner’s door …

Timothy L. O’Brien writes: Jared Kushner, according to reporting on Thursday from NBC and the Washington Post, is now front-and-center in the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s intersection with the Trump presidential campaign and, apparently, the Trump White House.

There are some unanswered questions here: NBC noted that Kushner is being treated differently from Trump campaign aides, such as Paul Manafort, and former White House officials, such as Michael Flynn. Grand juries have subpoenaed records from both of those men, and it’s not clear if subpoenas have landed on Kushner’s doorstep.

But the Washington Post also reported — and this seems central and crucial as to why the president’s son-in-law is a different sort of target here — that the FBI is focusing on a series of conversations that Kushner had in December with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

At the time, Kushner had already spent months trying to arrange fresh financing for a troubled building his family owns, 666 Fifth Avenue. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner met with Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, who is Putin crony and spy school graduate

NBC News reports: The Russian banker Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with in December is viewed by U.S. intelligence as a “Putin crony” and a graduate of a “finishing school” for spies who was often tasked with sensitive financial operations by Putin, according to multiple U.S. officials and documents viewed by NBC News.

Sergey Gorkov, 48, graduated from the FSB Academy, which was chartered in 1994 to educate Russian Intelligence personnel. He has long served Russian President Vladimir Putin in critical economic roles. Most recently, Putin chose him to head of the state-owned VneshEconomBank (VEB). As the Russian state national development bank, VEB has played a critical role in blunting the impact of U.S. sanctions against Russia by finding other sources of foreign capital.

Before that, Gorkov was the deputy chairman of Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, also state-owned, and also under U.S. sanctions since 2014. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner was in contact with Russian ambassador even before Trump had won GOP nomination

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Those contacts included two phone calls between April and November last year, two of the sources said. By early this year, Kushner had become a focus of the FBI investigation into whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, said two other sources – one current and one former law enforcement official.

Kushner initially had come to the attention of FBI investigators last year as they began scrutinizing former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s connections with Russian officials, the two sources said.

While the FBI is investigating Kushner’s contacts with Russia, he is not currently a target of that investigation, the current law enforcement official said.

The new information about the two calls as well as other details uncovered by Reuters shed light on when and why Kushner first attracted FBI attention and show that his contacts with Russian envoy Sergei Kislyak were more extensive than the White House has acknowledged. [Continue reading…]

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Russian once tied to Trump aide seeks immunity to cooperate with Congress

The New York Times reports: Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch once close to President Trump’s former campaign manager, has offered to cooperate with congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but lawmakers are unwilling to accept his conditions, according to congressional officials.

Mr. Deripaska’s offer comes amid increased attention to his ties to Paul Manafort, who is one of several Trump associates under F.B.I. scrutiny for possible collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign. The two men did business together in the mid-2000s, when Mr. Manafort, a Republican operative, was also providing campaign advice to Kremlin-backed politicians in Ukraine. Their relationship subsequently soured and devolved into a lawsuit.

Mr. Deripaska, an aluminum magnate who is a member of the inner circle of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, recently offered to cooperate with congressional intelligence committees in exchange for a grant of full immunity, according to three congressional officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. But the Senate and House panels turned him down because of concerns that immunity agreements create complications for federal criminal investigators, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Russian ambassador told Moscow that Kushner wanted secret communications channel with Kremlin

The Washington Post reports: Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Ambassador Sergei Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, son-in-law and confidant to then-President-elect Trump, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.

The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

The White House disclosed the fact of the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.

Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team. [Continue reading…]

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Comey acted on Russian intelligence he knew was fake

CNN reports: Then-FBI Director James Comey knew that a critical piece of information relating to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email was fake — created by Russian intelligence — but he feared that if it became public it would undermine the probe and the Justice Department itself, according to multiple officials with knowledge of the process.

As a result, Comey acted unilaterally last summer to publicly declare the investigation over — without consulting then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch — while at the same time stating that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information. His press conference caused a firestorm of controversy and drew criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.

Comey’s actions based on what he knew was Russian disinformation offer a stark example of the way Russian interference impacted the decisions of the highest-level US officials during the 2016 campaign.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that this Russian intelligence was unreliable. US officials now tell CNN that Comey and FBI officials actually knew early on that this intelligence was indeed false. [Continue reading…]

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How alleged Russian hacker, ‘Guccifer 2.0,’ teamed up with Florida GOP operative and funneled data to Trump campaign

The Wall Street Journal reports: The hacking spree that upended the presidential election wasn’t limited to Democratic National Committee memos and Clinton-aide emails posted on websites. The hacker also privately sent Democratic voter-turnout analyses to a Republican political operative in Florida named Aaron Nevins.

Learning that hacker “Guccifer 2.0” had tapped into a Democratic committee that helps House candidates, Mr. Nevins wrote to the hacker to say: “Feel free to send any Florida based information.”

Ten days later, Mr. Nevins received 2.5 gigabytes of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents, some of which he posted on a blog called HelloFLA.com that he ran using a pseudonym.

Soon after, the hacker sent a link to the blog article to Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, along with Mr. Nevins’ analysis of the hacked data.

Mr. Nevins confirmed his exchanges after The Wall Street Journal identified him first as the operator of the HelloFLA blog and then as the recipient of the stolen DCCC data. The Journal also reviewed copies of exchanges between the hacker and Mr. Nevins. That the obscure blog had received hacked Democratic documents was previously known, but not the extent of the trove or the blogger’s identity.

In hopes of a scoop, he said, he reached out to Guccifer 2.0 on Aug. 12 after seeing a newspaper article about a hack of the DCCC. The hacker using the Guccifer 2.0 name had invited journalists to send questions via Twitter direct messages, which Mr. Nevins did.

Seeing that some of what Guccifer 2.0 had was months old, Mr. Nevins advised the hacker that releasing fresher documents would have a lot more impact.

More impressed after studying the voter-turnout models, Mr. Nevins told the hacker, “Basically if this was a war, this is the map to where all the troops are deployed.” [Continue reading…]

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Jared Kushner now a focus in Russia investigation

The Washington Post reports: Investigators are focusing on a series of meetings held by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and an influential White House adviser, as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Kushner, who held meetings in December with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow, is being investigated because of the extent and nature of his interactions with the Russians, the people said.

The Washington Post reported last week that a senior White House official close to the president was a significant focus of the high-stakes investigation, though it did not name Kushner.

FBI agents also remain keenly interested in former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, but Kushner is the only current White House official known to be considered a key person in the probe. [Continue reading…]

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‘Anyone . . . with a pulse’: How a Russia-friendly adviser found his way into the Trump campaign

The Washington Post reports: As Donald Trump surged in the Republican primary polls in the early months of 2016, his outsider campaign faced growing pressure to show that the former reality-TV star and noted provocateur was forming a coherent and credible world view.

So when Carter Page, an international businessman with an office near Trump Tower, turned up at campaign headquarters, former officials recall, Trump aides were quick to make him feel welcome.

A top Trump adviser, Sam Clovis, employed what campaign aides now acknowledge was their go-to vetting process — a quick Google search — to check out the newcomer. He seemed to have the right qualifications, according to former campaign officials — head of an energy investment firm, business degree from New York University, doctorate from the University of London.

Page was in. He joined a new Trump campaign national security advisory group, and, in late March 2016, the candidate pointed to Page, among others, as evidence of a foreign policy team with gravitas.

But what the Google search had not shown was that Page had been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013, when Russian officials allegedly attempted to use him to get information about the energy business.

By the summer of 2016, Page, who had been recently named as a Trump adviser, was under surveillance by FBI agents who suspected he may have been acting as an agent of the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers are using ‘tainted’ leaks to sow disinformation

Andy Greenberg writes: Over the past year, the Kremlin’s strategy of weaponizing leaks to meddle with democracies around the world has become increasingly clear, first in the US and more recently in France. But a new report by a group of security researchers digs into another layer of those so-called influence operations: how Russian hackers alter documents within those releases of hacked material, planting disinformation alongside legitimate leaks.

A new report from researchers at the Citizen Lab group at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Public Affairs documents a wide-ranging hacking campaign, with ties to known Russian hacker groups. The effort targeted more than 200 individuals, ranging from Russian media to a former Russian prime minister to Russian opposition groups, and assorted government and military personnel from Ukraine to Vietnam. Noteworthy among the leaks: A Russia-focused journalist and author whose emails were not only stolen but altered before their release. Once they appeared on a Russian hactivist site, Russian state media used the disinformation to concoct a CIA conspiracy.

The case could provide the clearest evidence yet that Russian hackers have evolved their tactics from merely releasing embarrassing true information to planting false leaks among those facts. “Russia has a long history of experience with disinformation,” says Ron Deibert, the political science professor who led Citizen Lab’s research into the newly uncovered hacking spree. “This is the first case of which I am aware that compares tainted documents to originals associated with a cyber espionage campaign.” [Continue reading…]

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Greg Gianforte: Fox News team witnesses GOP House candidate ‘body slam’ Guardian reporter

Fox News reports: The race to fill Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives took a violent turn Wednesday, and a crew from the Fox News Channel, including myself, witnessed it firsthand.

As part of our preparation for a story about Thursday’s special election to air on “Special Report with Bret Baier,” we arranged interviews with the top two candidates, Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist. On Wednesday, I joined field producer Faith Mangan and photographer Keith Railey in Bozeman for our scheduled interview with Gianforte, which was to take place at the Gianforte for Congress Bozeman Headquarters.

Faith, Keith and I arrived early to set up for the interview in a room adjacent to another room where a volunteer BBQ was to take place. As the time for the interview neared, Gianforte came into the room. We exchanged pleasantries and made small talk about restaurants and Bozeman. [Continue reading…]

An editorial in the Missoulian, rescinding its endorsement of the GOP candidate, says: there is no doubt that Gianforte committed an act of terrible judgment that, if it doesn’t land him in jail, also shouldn’t land him in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He showed Wednesday night that he lacks the experience, brains and abilities to effectively represent Montana in any elected office.

And in case critics say this is just fake news from the liberal media, let us repeat one fact again: The eyewitness account of Gianforte’s actions came from a Fox News reporter.

We hope our fellow Montanans who haven’t already cast their ballots will say loud and clear at the polls Thursday that Greg Gianforte is not the man we want representing us in Washington. He does not represent Montana values and he should not represent us in Congress. [Continue reading…]

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GOP candidate Greg Gianforte has financial ties to U.S.-sanctioned Russian companies

The Guardian reports: A Republican congressional candidate has financial ties to a number of Russian companies that have been sanctioned by the US, the Guardian has learned.

Greg Gianforte, who is the GOP standard bearer in the upcoming special election in Montana, owns just under $250,000 in shares in two index funds that are invested in the Russian economy to match its overall performance.

According to a financial disclosure filed with the clerk of the House of Representatives, the Montana tech mogul owns almost $150,000 worth of shares in VanEck Vectors Russia ETF and $92,400 in the IShares MSCF Russia ETF fund. Both are indexed to the Russian equities market and have significant holdings in companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft that came under US sanctions in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of the Crimea. [Continue reading…]

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