President Trump's son-in-law and now top White House advisor Jared Kushner proposed a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting with a leading Russian diplomat.
Kushner spoke with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about creating that line of communication to facilitate sensitive discussions aimed at exploring the incoming administration's options with Russia as it was developing its Syria policy, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke with the Associated Press.
The intent was to connect Trump's then-chief national security advisor Michael T. Flynn with Russian military leaders, said the source, who wasn't authorized to publicly discuss private policy deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Russia, a pivotal player in Syria, has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, often at the expense of civilians during a long civil war.
The White House did not acknowledge the meeting or Kushner's attendance until March. At the time, a White House official dismissed it as a brief courtesy meeting.
Kushner's involvement in the proposed back channel was first reported by the Washington Post, which said he proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities for the discussions, apparently to make them more difficult to monitor.
The newspaper cited anonymous U.S. officials who were briefed on intelligence reports on intercepted Russian communications.
The Post wrote that Kislyak was reportedly taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.
According to the person familiar with the Kushner meeting, the Trump team eventually felt there was no need for a back channel once Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of State, and decided to communicate with Moscow through more official channels. Tillerson was sworn in Feb. 1.
Flynn served briefly as Trump's national security advisor before being fired in February after officials said he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call.
Sally Yates, the former acting U.S. attorney general, told Congress this month that the deception left Flynn vulnerable to being blackmailed by the Russians. Flynn remains under federal investigation in Virginia over his foreign business ties and was interviewed by the FBI in January about his contacts with Kislyak.
The disclosure of the back channel put White House advisors on the defensive Saturday, as Trump wrapped up his first foreign trip as president, and led lawyers for Kushner to say he is willing to talk with federal and congressional investigators about his foreign contacts and his work on the Trump campaign.
Meeting with reporters in Sicily, two Trump advisors refused to address the contents of Kushner's December meeting with the Russian diplomat. But they did not dismiss the idea that the administration would go outside normal U.S. government and diplomatic channels for communications with other countries.
Speaking generally, national security advisor H.R. McMaster said "we have back channel communications with a number of countries." He added: "It allows you to communicate in a discreet manner."
In response to repeated questions from reporters, Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn said, "We're not going to comment on Jared. We're just not going to comment."
Kushner was a trusted Trump advisor last year, overseeing the campaign's digital strategy, and remains an influential confidant within the White House as does his wife, Ivanka Trump.
Federal investigators and several congressional committees are looking into any connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, including allegations that there may have been collaboration to help Trump and harm his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.