While US president Donald Trump was completing the final leg of his first foreign tour last week, the FBI probe into the Russia scandal closed in on his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his meetings with Russian officials at the end of last year. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Kushner met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington, during the transition. Hours after his return to the US on Saturday night, Trump “went on the offensive” with a series of tweets suggesting that many of the White House leaks were “fabricated by reporters seeking to damage his presidency”, says Sam Fleming in the Financial Times.
Although Trump did not directly address the claims about Kushner, aides “sought to downplay” their significance and the White House is setting up a “war room” to handle communications about Russia. Michael Dubke, the White House head of communications, has resigned in what is believed to be a wider “shake-up” of the team. The White House has faced a “mounting public relations crisis” ever since Trump fired FBI director James Comey last month over what he described as the “Russia thing”. He reportedly did so on the advice of Kushner, who assured him it would land him a “political win”, says Rhys Blakely in The Times.
Kushner’s instincts aren’t good, but he deserves a “bit of sympathy”, says David Brooks in The New York Times. He’s spent his life “serving his father or father-in-law” and has repeatedly been “thrust into roles he’s not ready for”. His fierce family loyalty and “clannish mentality” serve him ill in government. Politics is about teamwork, majority building and “working within legal frameworks and bureaucratic institutions”.
“We don’t know everything about his meetings with the Russians,” adds Brooks. But we do know that they “went against the formal system” and also that they “betray rookie naivety on several levels – apparently trusting the Russians not to betray him, apparently not understanding that these conversations would be surveyed by the American intelligence services, possibly not understanding how alarming they would look to outsiders”. Now there’s a chance he will “end up in disgrace and possibly under indictment”.
But what was he up to, asks Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. The use of “only Russian communication equipment suggests the Trump administration had something to hide”. And what did Kushner want to discuss with the Kremlin that couldn’t be discussed through official channels (The New York Times reported that it was to allow the then national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was present at the meeting with Kislyak, to discuss the war in Syria and other issues).
Setting up secret communications at this time “would not be illegal”, but it is “highly unusual”, say Matthew Rosenberg, Mark Mazetti and Maggie Haberman in The New York Times. Concerns that Obama administration officials were monitoring calls may have had something to do with it. But Kushner also failed to disclose the meetings with Kislyak, or other Russians, including Sergey Gorkov, the Russian banker whose bank is “deeply intertwined” with Russian intelligence, when he applied for security clearance in January. This was allegedly a mistake – later amended – but it is unclear whether he also revealed his attempt to set up a back channel.
So what now? The Democratic National Committee called on Trump to fire Kushner, says Cristiano Lima on Politico. The committee also questioned the extent to which Trump was aware of Kushner’s attempts to establish secret communications with Russia, “because no one stands between Trump and Kushner in the chain of command”. The most significant question that remains to be answered is the extent to which Trump knew what was going on.
Merkel’s fighting talk riles Trump
Angela Merkel is not usually one for “bold statements”, says Guy Chazan in the Financial Times. But the German chancellor’s comments on Sunday at a campaign event in Munich stunned even her own party. Europeans must “take our own destiny in our own hands”, she said. “We need to have friendly relations with the US and with the UK and with other neighbours, including Russia. But we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”
The speech was made in the wake of Trump’s first visit to Europe, during which he failed to reaffirm Article 5 of Nato, the alliance’s mutual defence clause; refused to endorse the Paris climate accord; and described Germany as “bad, very bad” for selling too many cars in the US. But her remarks were also, perhaps more than was “immediately understood” abroad, aimed at a domestic audience, four months ahead of German elections.
Nevertheless, her remarks were “dangerously inflammatory”, says The Times. Trump dislikes “losing face”. By implying that the US can no longer be relied on, she is “exacerbating what may be a temporary divergence” and overlooking the long-standing and understandable US criticism that Europe is not pulling its weight in Nato. If Merkel has weakened Nato, the “only happy politician will be Vladimir Putin”.
Indeed, says Roger Boyes, on Monday the new French president Emmanuel Macron gave Putin a tour of Versailles and engaged in talks billed as “frank and direct”. Macron thinks that together he and Merkel can “define more precisely [Europe’s] borders and its values”. But so far it is “just wind”. Recent European policy on Russia has been “misjudged and ineffectual”.
Macron can’t be faulted for trying, says Henry Samuel in The Daily Telegraph. In the “muscular” exchange, he accused the Russian state-sponsored media of lies during his electoral campaign and threatened an “instant response” should chemical weapons be used in Syria. However, the evolution of a “hard-edged, rational policy towards Russia” cannot just be the work of a united EU, but requires the “active participation of the US”.