Staying current on the Washington scandal (that still has no name) requires readers to follow scores of conflicting lines of communication. It sounds confusing, but as long as you confine yourself to the single meta-query, “Who said what to whom and what did it mean?”, you should be able to stay on top of things.
The week’s news scorecard has so many additions and scratch-outs it’s starting to look like it was lifted from a bench-clearing 19-inning game. We now know that Attorney General Sessions had a third, previously undisclosed contact with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller might be including the AG in his expanding investigation. Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) returned to the line-up, issuing a subpoena to the spy agencies to determine who “unmasked” the identities of Trump campaign officials in a foreign surveillance operation. And in the Russian League action, Vladimir Putin—perhaps the most disreputable player since Ty Cobb—threw a bunch of junk from the mound, conjecturing that independently acting Russian patriots might have been the Democratic National Committee hackers.
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Even so, the news-heavy week belonged to Time magazine cover boy Jared Kushner, around whom speculation swirled like a cyclone. The top communications puzzle this week was this: What did Jared Kushner chat about with Sergey N. Gorkov, a Russian banker with spy credentials, when he met with him for a half-hour in December at the behest of Ambassador Kislyak? An assortment of answers are on offer. According to the White House, the meeting’s purpose was diplomatic, part of the Trump transition’s strategy to get a head start on reshaping relations with the Russians. According to Gorkov’s state-owned bank, VneshEconomBank, or VEB, the session was part of a new business strategy, which sounds plausible because Kushner was still running his family’s real estate operation at the time.
Who are you going to believe? The Rooskies or Prince Jared? Why can’t you believe both? Early in the week, the New York Times speculated that Kushner’s goal was to use the banker as a “go-between” who could provide him with a direct line to Vladimir Putin. That theorizing is consistent with the belief that Gorkov, after seeing Kushner, flew directly to Japan to meet with Putin. The lifting of Russian sanctions, which limit American borrowing from the bank, could very well have been on the Kushner meeting agenda. The sanctions crimp Russia, especially its ruling class, by blocking economic activity in the United States, something they dearly covet. Kushner could have been killing several birds with one meeting. In addition to the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for lifting the sanctions and repeated efforts to back-channel with the Russians, it’s well known that Kushner needs to refinance his 666 Fifth Avenue tower, which he foolishly bought for $1.8 billion in 2007 at the top of the market. Adding to the intrigue comes the additional fact that Kushner did not disclose any of his Russian contacts when he applied for a security clearance in January.
Just when you thought we had drained all the news value out of Kushner’s and Michael Flynn’s previous meeting with Ambassador Kislyak—the parley where Kushner allegedly asked if he could use a secure communications channel inside a Russian diplomatic facility to connect the incoming Trump administration with Russia—comes a dueling account from Fox News. In a piece published Tuesday, the news organization reported that the secure line ideas came from the ambassador, not Kushner, and it was a one-off suggestion to discuss Syria.
The Fox piece carried no byline, which indicates that nobody at Rupert Murdoch’s outfit wanted to take professional responsibility for it. As solid lines of communications go, the Fox signal was heavy on noise, citing as it did a single source “familiar with the matter” to back its scoop. Tellingly, no other news organization corroborated the Fox piece or extended it findings. To some seasoned ears—well, to mine, at least—the “source familiar with the matter” sounded like Fox’s old fox. Murdoch is well known for his telephone heart-to-hearts with President Trump, and he’s also well-known for feeding tips to his reporters, including bogus ones. In 2004, the New York Times identified Murdoch as the source of the tip behind his New York Post Page One story that erroneously claimed John Kerry was picking Richard Gephardt as his running mate.
Back to Kushner’s back-channeling. Trump’s surrogates turn several shades of blasé when asked about the propriety of Kushner’s outreach, taking a freer-the-flow-of-information-the-better position. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster took exactly this tack last Saturday, telling reporters that back-channel discussions don’t concern him. “We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” McMaster said. Well, yeah, but those back-channels are official U.S. government operations, not the freelance efforts of a president-elect’s son-in-law to be conducted on a Rooskies hot line. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway reiterated McMaster’s message perfectly a couple of days later, claiming with a straight face that back-channels are just “the regular course of business.”
Against the Russia news onslaught the administration has adopted a novel stonewalling strategy. Henceforth, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House will now refer all questions about the investigation to Trump’s outside counsel, Marc Kasowitz, as a classic crisis-communications fix. Spicer might as well have told the pressies that he was depositing all of their Russia questions in a black hole in a galaxy far, far away. Unfortunately for the president, he doesn’t turn invisible whenever he covers his eyes with his hands.
The war of the words theme will likely be a reprise next week as Congress fills its dockets with Trump-linked witnesses. First up will be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the spy chiefs to discuss the extension of U.S. surveillance powers. Then—if an overreaching “executive privilege” protest by the president doesn’t block his appearance—former FBI Director James Comey will testify about his dismissal. Will Congress believe the flip-flopping president or the master of the contemporaneous memo? Do you have to ask?
What shall we call the scandal? Readers stepped up with their suggestions. Shall it be Russia House (T. Coombs), “Donnybrook” (Charlie Mulholland, Heather McAlpin), “Trussia,” (Fred Zimmerman, Derek Norman), or “Swampwater” (Shirley Sommer)? Send your ideas (all names suffixed “gate” will be rejected) to [email protected]. My email alerts live in a black hole, my Twitter feed in the Horsehead Nebula, and my RSS feed on one of the asteroids that tumbled past the spaceship Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey.