Kushner, Russia bombshells rock the White House
First, it emerged Tuesday that chief of staff John Kelly downgraded the top secret security clearance for the President’s son-in-law in a bid to clear up a scandal over whether top administration players are qualified to access the most sensitive intelligence.
Then, The Washington Post published a bombshell report that at least four countries had discussed how to use Kushner’s sparse experience, financial troubles and intricate business arrangements to manipulate him.
Hours later, CNN reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is asking questions about Trump’s business dealings with Russia before the President’s campaign, a potentially significant development in the investigation.
The triple blows at Trump’s inner circle added to the already incredible personal, political and legal pressure heaped on the President and the strain on those staffing his turbulent presidency.
They come at a moment when Mueller’s probe is gathering pace, cranking out indictments of Trump associates, and appears to be posing a more severe threat to the President, Kushner and other important associates.
The developments were more than a personal and public humiliation to Kushner, who has played an influential, if mysterious, role in the administration.
They put the sustainability of his role as a top foreign policy adviser to Trump in doubt because he will have access to far fewer government secrets and cannot see the Presidential Daily Brief, the collection of the spy community’s treasures prepared for the commander in chief.
The downgrade appears to make it all but impossible for Kushner to do his job even though the White House and his lawyer say that is not the case.
But how for example can he carry out his duties running the Middle East peace process or liaising with top Gulf powers if he is not privy to the latest intelligence about his interlocutors or other key regional players like Iran?
Similarly, Kushner could find himself asked to leave sensitive meetings in the White House or force top intelligence or foreign policy officials to avoid the most sensitive subjects in meetings that he is in with the President.
“He can’t see intercepted communications — that’s top secret, he’s now downgraded to secret … he can’t see the most secret CIA information about their informants,” said Phil Mudd, a former CIA and FBI official who is now a CNN national security analyst.
“He can’t see some of the stuff our Western allies see,” he added.
Ultimately, unless Kushner is cleared by the FBI to receive a permanent security clearance or gets a waiver from the President his diminished role will spur fresh speculation about his longevity as a White House staffer.
His departure and potentially that of his wife Ivanka Trump, who just controversially led a US mission to South Korea’s Winter Olympics at a time of flaring nuclear tensions with North Korea, would mark a huge earthquake in Trump world.
As it is, the couple will see their “influence diminished,” a GOP source close to the White House told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Fresh doubts over Kushner’s position also risked reflecting poorly on Trump, given that the President made a close family member who was apparently unqualified or at risk of being compromised by foreign powers such a pivotal adviser.
After all, Trump pledged to hire the most qualified people in the world to serve in his administration, and made the alleged mishandling of classified material by his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton a key argument of his campaign.
Trump was already under ethical fire for breaking anti-nepotism conventions by hiring family members. Kushner’s new troubles will make those questions even more acute.
“This is a stunning blow to President Trump,” said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali, noting that Kushner was one of the few senior advisers with whom Trump felt comfortable.
“This is a big deal … he must be fuming,” Naftali told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
The idea that key foreign countries, including Mexico, Israel, China and the United Arab Emirates had acted on conversations about how to manipulate Kushner, according to current and former US officials familiar with intelligence reports cited by the Post, is also a problem.
After all, the optics of a senior presidential adviser sitting down with leaders who have been publicly reported to have tried to compromise him would weaken his leverage.
The political implications of the Kushner news are less profound than the national security questions but no less intriguing.
The strike against Kushner is a bold move by Kelly who has worked to remove what he sees a distracting elements around the President — such as former top political adviser Steve Bannon and former foreign policy aide Sebastian Gorka. But his decision to take on the President’s son-in-law is the most significant and potentially risky coup yet.
Last week, Trump told reporters he would let Kelly decide what to do about his son-in-law’s clearance but stressed that Kushner had done an “outstanding job.” The comment was seen by many in Washington as a broad hint to Kelly that the President wanted Kushner kept in the loop.
Now any attempt by Trump to contradict Kelly’s move would shatter the chief of staff’s authority and make his position all but impossible. But if Kelly prevails, his decision on Kushner will be regarded as a gutsy political victory and would undercut speculation he cannot last much longer in the White House.
Signs that Mueller is looking into Trump’s finances meanwhile add a layer of intensity to the drama surrounding his investigation.
The President has previously warned that he would not tolerate the special counsel seeking such information, so speculation about whether Trump will try to fire Mueller will be revived.
While there is no indication so far of any wrongdoing by Trump or collusion with a Russian election meddling effort, the report again poses the question of whether his past business dealings could have been a target for any Russian attempt to compromise him.
Any sense on the part of the President that the walls are closing in will not have been helped by Tuesday’s testimony to a House committee by Hope Hicks, his communications director and close campaign aide.
CNN’s Manu Raju reported that Hicks testified that she has sometimes had to tell white lies for the President, but had not lied about anything substantive.