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Morning News Brief: Kushner And Russia Reports, Europe Tries To Go It Alone


It sounds like the White House might not be kicking back on this Memorial Day.


No. The president does have a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, which is standard for this holiday. The rest is not. The White House faces reports about the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner. The Washington Post first reported - and others have followed up - saying that Kushner tried to set up a secret back channel to Russia. This is during the presidential transition.

Kushner wanted to use Russian secure diplomatic facilities so that Americans could not listen. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly downplayed this on NBC's "Meet The Press" yesterday.


JOHN KELLY: You know, there's a lot of different ways to communicate back channel, you know, publicly with with other countries. I don't see any big issue here relative to Jared.

INSKEEP: Well, that would seem to confirm the back channel story. President Trump has tried a different approach. On Twitter yesterday, he attacked stories that quote anonymous sources - anonymous sources, for the record, the kind of sources the president himself has used for years.

GREENE: Well, a lot to get through here - let's chat with NPR's Scott Detrow from NPR's Politics team and NPR's Greg Myre who covers national security. Good morning, guys.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Hey, Scott. Let me start with you. What exactly has the president said about these allegations about Kushner?

DETROW: Not too much yet. He gave this statement to The New York Times yesterday saying, quote, "Jared is doing a great job for this country. I have total confidence in him." And Trump went in - on to call Kushner a great businessman and a good person. He also weighed in, as Steve was saying, on Twitter, saying these leaks are fabricated lies made up by the fake news media.

GREENE: We've heard that before from the president.

DETROW: Many times - it's kind of his standard response to a lot of things. He also said it's possible these sources don't exist and they're made up. It is notable here because Trump had avoided posts like this throughout the entirety of his international trip, and that's something that his aides were very happy about. They felt like it led to a more successful trip by avoiding tweets like this.

GREENE: Back home and back on Twitter.

Hey Greg, let's assume that that Kushner was doing this. What would be the advantage of having some kind of back channel with Russia? What would it allow the White House to actually accomplish that maybe it couldn't otherwise?

MYRE: Well, it seems long ago and far away. But just after the campaign, Trump had been making all these complimentary remarks about Putin - been getting a lot of heat for that. So this would allow them to have some conversations with the Russians privately without the big, public glare and the criticism it might bring. But certainly, it seems the disadvantages are much greater because it plays right into the narrative that there are these mysterious contacts with Russia. We don't know what they are planning to do. So the downside seems much greater. And here we are six months later, and this is the issue consuming the Trump presidency.

GREENE: Well, I wonder, is there a precedent for this? I mean, I think back to President Obama asking the pope sort of in a back channel way - right? - to help pave the way for the visit he wanted to make to Cuba. Is this sort of like that or different?

MYRE: It's different. And number one, Trump was not president in December, so he didn't have the authority to make policy at this point. So that's - there's this idea of one president at a time. So the notion that he might be using a back channel to establish a policy would be significant and totally be against the norm.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking about the fact - you give that example, David, of asking the pope to be an intermediary. That's using...


INSKEEP: ...A special channel where the normal diplomatic channels aren't working. This is going to the normal diplomat, the Russian ambassador, but trying to talk to him in a way that your own intelligence agencies don't have as much of a chance to listen in. That's what this is.

MYRE: Yeah, though - and there's this established channel. I mean, Russia has a huge embassy here. Not to put too fine a point on it but if you walk out the front door of the White House on 16th Street and just go due north up 16th street for several blocks, the Russian ambassador has this spectacular residence. So there are perfectly well-established channels to communicate, and even a transition team having talks with foreign diplomats is perfectly acceptable. So it again raises questions. Why do it in a mysterious way that you're trying to conceal?

GREENE: Well - and you said feeding this narrative. Scott Detrow, I mean, going forward, is there talk of how the White House is going to handle all of these questions now?

DETROW: A lot of talk - I don't think many hard decisions have been made yet. But the idea of handling the Russia scandal as a whole - there's discussion about trying to wall this off, bringing in outside lawyers to deal with the Russian probe and maybe even an outside communications team, kind of a crisis response team. That's something that you saw Bill Clinton's White House do to deal with long-running investigations and scandals. But we have seen over and over again, this is not a president who would be likely to listen to advice from staffers saying - hey, don't talk about this issue at all. Stay on message. Avoid it.

INSKEEP: The first thing a crisis communications team would tell you is be quiet. Shut up.

MYRE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Don't say as much. Let's figure out...

GREENE: Stop tweeting.

INSKEEP: ...What our very limited message is here.

DETROW: And Trump has been so defensive, so clearly upset by this investigation. We know how important his family is to him. You know, his staff can come and go and is expendable, but his family is key. So you have to imagine that that defensiveness and frustration would be amped up to a whole new level if Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, is the one in the crosshairs of all these reports and focus right now.

GREENE: Hey, Greg Myre, let me ask you one thing. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, was asked about this whole Jared Kushner story. And he told CNN, I don't trust this story as far as I can throw it. Here's more of what he said.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think it makes no sense that the Russian ambassador would report back to Moscow on a channel that he most likely knows we're monitoring. The whole storyline is suspicious.

GREENE: What is Graham talking about there? Are there some details in this story that aren't totally adding up?

MYRE: Absolutely. I mean, I would love to see how the Russians felt when - if this message was correct, that they're hearing that people from the Trump team want to come to the Russian embassy or Russian diplomatic facility and use their most secure communications to talk to the Kremlin and talk to Moscow. I just imagine they were agape when when they heard something like this.

And imagine if this word had got out. This, again, would play straight into that narrative of secretive contacts with Russia. We keep hearing about conspiracy theories, but I think also we just have to consider the rookie mistake theory - that these guys didn't quite know what they were doing if this is indeed true.

INSKEEP: People who did not have experience in government. Just one more point before we move on - David mentioned that the president has told The New York Times he has total confidence in Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. The White House also said they had full confidence in Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, hours before he departed, which is kind of normal in this situation. We just don't know what the future of Jared Kushner is going to be.

GREENE: All right, Greg Myre covers national security for NPR. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: Thank you, David.

GREENE: And hey, Scott Detrow, stick around because we want to talk a little bit about the fallout in Europe from President Trump's big visit there last week.

INSKEEP: Yeah, European leaders all got their chance to chat or listen to President Trump last week. Emmanuel Macron of France shook his hand and shook it some more - and some more. The prime minister of Montenegro got shoved aside at a photo op. Many leaders heard the president criticize NATO spending. And when it was all over, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europeans could no longer rely on the United States or, for that matter, Britain.



INSKEEP: She's saying there, "we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands."

GREENE: Which is an extraordinary thing to say.

NPR's Scott Detrow's still here. And I think we have NPR's Eleanor Beardsley on the line from Paris. Eleanor, are you there?


GREENE: All right. Well, Scott, let me just start with you if I can. Europe is going to be - really be watching closely this week after that visit and also because President Trump might announce something about U.S. participation in the big Paris climate agreement. What do we expect exactly?

DETROW: I mean, we say remarkable so often. But this is another example, you know, after the G7...

INSKEEP: Remarkably often.

DETROW: Remarkably often. Six countries put out a statement affirming the Paris Agreement. The U.S. does not. Now, White House officials say Trump has an open mind here, that he was listening carefully. But I think it's important to remember that this decision has mostly already been made. Trump directed the EPA to begin dismantling the regulations that were the main way the U.S. was going to reach these climate goals, specifically shifting away from coal-fired power plants to renewable and natural gas. So the decision has really already been made, regardless of what Trump says this week.

GREENE: OK. So Eleanor, this is one reason, among several, that Merkel questioned whether Europe can rely on the United States going forward. What is the reaction to that speech in Europe?

BEARDSLEY: Well, David, absolutely. You know, after Brexit, we now have Trump's stance. And there's an increasing realization on the continent that the Anglo-Saxon partners, as they're known here, Britain and America, can't be counted on.

But, you know, this is all in line with newly elected President Emmanuel Macron's plans and thinking. He campaigned on building a stronger Europe all along a more powerful Franco-German relationship. He reached out to Angela Merkel as soon as he was elected, went to Berlin. So the turning away of Britain and the U.S. is just going to strengthen that relationship. And the two countries really say they're not only determined to make, you know, Europe self-sufficient and independent, but they want it to be a real counterweight to Trump's America.

GREENE: OK. So Emmanuel Macron had that handshake with Donald Trump, which he is saying was no accident. He wanted to give a strong handshake to show that he was not going to back down to this American president. And this new French leader now has his own visitor today. It's Russian President Vladimir Putin. That's fascinating.

BEARDSLEY: It is, David. And, you know, he says he's making no concessions to leaders like Putin, Trump and Turkey's Erdogan. He says they love power plays. But I'm there, and I'm going to be tough, and I'm not afraid of that.

GREENE: He's comparing Trump and putting him in the same sentence as Erdogan and Putin.

BEARDSLEY: Absolutely. And we're going to see what happens today at the Palace of Versailles, where he says he will bring up eastern Ukraine, Syria and human rights abuses in Chechnya.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and NPR's Scott Detrow from NPR's Politics team in our studios this morning. Hey, thank you both.

DETROW: Thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE ROCK SONG, "THE BEST SECRET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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