The White House on Tuesday offered a vigorous defense of President Trump’s embattled adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Press secretary Sean Spicer sought to cast doubt on the veracity of media reports that Kushner had sought a secret communications channel with Russia during the presidential transition, while simultaneously defending Kushner’s alleged conduct.
“Your question assumes a lot of facts that are not substantiated by anything but anonymous sources that are being leaked out,” Spicer told reporters during the White House’s first daily press briefing since Trump’s nine-day trip overseas.
But Spicer also pointed to remarks from senior administration officials that “in general terms … back channels are an appropriate part of diplomacy.”
He declined to confirm the details of Kushner’s December meeting with the Russian ambassador, including what the president knew and what was discussed.
Earlier in the day, the Trump retweeted a single-source Fox News article reporting that the Russian ambassador, not Kushner, had suggested a secure back channel for communication.The heightened scrutiny of Kushner comes after reports that he is now a focus of the federal probe into Russian interference in the presidential election.
The New York Times reported Monday that federal investigators are examining a separate December meeting between Kushner and a Russian banker who has deep ties to Russian intelligence. Current and former U.S. officials told the Times that the meeting might have been part of an effort by Kushner to establish a direct line to the Kremlin outside of established diplomatic channels.
Trump has cut loose other close advisors in the past — like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort — when the scrutiny over their relationships to Russia became too hot.
But Kushner is family — and by all accounts, Trump views family loyalty as paramount.
“Jared is in a very unique position, as is Ivanka [Trump], being the only family members on the executive White House team. They’re not going to be summarily fired like a staffer would,” said Matt Mackowiack, a Republican strategist and a contributor to The Hill.
“My sense is Jared is going to have a longer leash and would be treated differently.”
Both national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly over the weekend downplayed the reports of the request for a back channel, which came before Trump’s inauguration.
Kelly told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that a back channel would be “both normal … and acceptable.”
McMaster told reporters during a brief press briefing in Italy over the weekend that he was “not concerned” by the reports.
“We have back-channel communications with any number of individual [countries],” McMaster said. “Generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner.”
Nevertheless, Kushner’s rising profile in the federal and congressional investigations into Russian interference in the election appears to have put strain on his relationship with the president.
Reports have indicated that Kushner is now included in Trump’s regular dressing-down of aides and officials.
And Trump was reportedly annoyed by the blowback in the press after Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, touted a controversial U.S. visa program when seeking investment money for Kushner Companies from Chinese financiers. Meyer mentioned that Kushner had recently joined the administration.
The tension has raised questions about Kushner’s future in the White House, where he has a broad portfolio that includes revamping the federal bureaucracy and peace in the Middle East.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that while Kushner is “weary” of the 24/7 media frenzy, those close to him say he has no plans to take a reduced role.
“I think the only way Jared and Ivanka leave is if they say, ‘This is bull—t — I’m going home, turns out making millions of dollars is more fun than dealing with this every day,’ ” said a former Trump adviser.
Although he is now under fierce scrutiny over the Russia meeting, Kushner has at times been viewed as a moderating influence on his firebrand father-in-law. Some reports suggest he has advocated against the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, for example.
And he planned the first half of the president’s recent trip overseas, which included the stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican — what was generally seen as the more successful leg of the nine-day tour.
“I think it would be inevitable for it to put a strain on the relationship — but Jared isn’t simply a negative on the team. He obviously is trusted,” Mackowiack said.
Much will depend on the trajectory of the various investigations that now include Kushner — and how much leaks out to the media.
Kushner has already volunteered through counsel to cooperate with the congressional investigations into Russian meddling in the election. Those probes include a look at communications between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials.
Some Democrats have called for Kushner’s resignation — or even prosecution — noting that Kushner initially failed to disclose three contacts with Russian officials during and after the 2016 campaign on his security clearance form.
But allies of the president suggest that even if Kushner steps back from his White House role, it would be unlikely to ease any of the pressure on the president over Russia.
“The administration will not get any credit should Jared resign,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, arguing that “they’re just going to go after somebody else.”
Jonathan Easley contributed.