29 May 2017

Trump claims Kushner leaks 'fabricated lies'

11:55 am on 29 May 2017

US President Donald Trump has dismissed reports of leaks claiming his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to set up secret communications with Moscow as "fake news".

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania walk to the White House from Marine One after their nine-day tour to the Middle East and Europe.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania walk to the White House from Marine One after their nine-day tour to the Middle East and Europe. Photo: AFP

Returning to the US over the weekend after his first official tour overseas as president, Mr Trump responded to accusations Mr Kushner - who is married to his daughter Ivanka - had contacts with Moscow in December about opening a secret back channel of communications.

Kushner, 36, a real estate developer with no previous government experience, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former US officials have told Reuters.

Taking his outrage to Twitter, Mr Trump said it was his opinion many of the White House leaks were "fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media".

The Republican president returned on Saturday to the White House after a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to face more questions about alleged communications between Jared Kushner and Russia's ambassador to Washington.

The White House faces mounting questions about potential ties between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign, which are also the subject of criminal and congressional investigations. Trump officials were preparing to establish a "war room" to address the issue that has begun to dominate his young presidency.

The New York Times reported he was expected to meet with lawyers as early as Sunday, quoting aides.

Contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials during the campaign coincided with what US intelligence agencies concluded was a Kremlin effort - through computer hacking, fake news and propaganda - to boost Mr Trump's chances of winning the White House.

White House officials defended the concept of secret communications channels without commenting specifically on the Kushner case. National security adviser H R McMaster told reporters on Saturday that so-called back-channeling was not unusual.

Shortly after Mr Trump's remarks, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly made the rounds of Sunday television news shows to praise any so-called back channel communications, especially with Russia, as "a good thing".

Mr Kelly, the homeland security secretary, carried the same message on Sunday.

"It's both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable," he said on ABC's This Week.

"Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organisations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing."

Mr Kelly told Fox News Sunday there was nothing wrong with the Trump transition team trying to build relationships with the Russians as they prepared to take over the White House.

US Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said such secret channels may be used in situations including peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan or for the release of American hostages.

"But for people associated with the campaign after that campaign has ended and where the Russians during that campaign were helping you, to try to establish a back channel and hide it from your own government, that's a serious allegation," he said.

Mr Schiff was particularly concerned about a Washington Post report that the back channel would have been conducted at a Russian diplomatic facility to avoid monitoring in US communications systems.

"You have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversation from?" he said on ABC.

Mr Schiff said he expected Mr Kushner to appear before his committee, and suggested his security clearance be reviewed.

Jared Kushner is understood to be under scrutiny by the FBI as part of its wider investigation into Russian links.

Jared Kushner is understood to be under scrutiny by the FBI as part of its wider investigation into Russian links. Photo: AFP

Mr Kushner initially had come to the attention of FBI investigators last year as they began scrutinising former national security adviser Michael Flynn's connections with Russian officials, two sources told Reuters.

Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN he doubted the Kushner reports were accurate. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Kushner has been willing to answer questions.

"They reached out to us yesterday to make sure that we knew that was the case and I'm sure he's willing to do so, Mr Corker said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Former director of national intelligence James Clapper took a darker view of contacts with representatives of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"My dashboard warning light was clearly on and I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community - very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians," Mr Clapper told NBC's Meet The Press.

Though he had not seen evidence of collusion when he stepped down on 20 January, Clapper said all the signs made an FBI investigation not only appropriate but necessary.

"Russia, at least for my money, is our primary adversary," he told NBC. "They are not our friends. They are in to do us in."

- Reuters

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