President Donald Trump went on the offensive Sunday after returning from his nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to growing scandals at home over his administration’s communications with Russian officials, including an explosive report about Trump son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner.
Trump attacked the news media on Twitter, and the administration dispatched a retired four-star Marine general — Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — to defend Kushner on the Sunday news talk shows.
“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” Trump said on Twitter — a likely reference to The Washington Post’s story about Kushner on Friday, which was sourced to anonymous U.S. officials. The article said Kushner sought to set up a secret line of communication with Russia during the presidential transition.
Trump also leaned on two administration officials with military experience to defend Kushner, who has become a significant person of interest in the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow in its efforts to sway the presidential election toward Trump.
“I don’t see a big deal,” Kelly, the former head of U.S. Southern Command, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think any channel of communication back or otherwise with a country like Russia is a good thing.”
Trump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, also defended Kushner, telling reporters that back-channel communications are normal, according to Reuters.
"We have back-channel communications with any number of individual” countries, McMaster said. “So generally speaking, about back-channel communications, what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner."
Republicans, meanwhile, downplayed the reports about Kushner — with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joining Trump in casting doubt on the news media.
Graham, who has been one of Trump’s fiercest GOP critics on other issues, said Sunday he doesn’t "trust this story as far as I can throw it."
“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,” Graham explained to Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The whole story line is suspicious.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Kushner has agreed to speak with Senate investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.
“Sounds like he’s more than glad to talk about all of these things and instead of getting wrapped up into a lot of hyperbole, as these things can sometimes do, I think talking with him directly and getting him to answer any and all questions as he said he would do would probably be the prudent course of action,” Corker said to Chuck Todd.
For their part, congressional Democrats were muted in their responses to the Kushner developments on the Sunday news talk shows.
The most aggressive take came from Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in November’s presidential election, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Schiff called for a review of Kushner’s security clearance.
“If these reports are accurate, right after that campaign, after that intervention, to have the president’s son-in-law, a key player within the Trump Organization trying to establish a back channel with the Russians through a Russian diplomatic facility, you have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversations from?” Schiff said.
Schiff added that he was disappointed that McMaster defended Kushner and said “this is an administration that takes in people with good credibility and chews them out and spits out their credibility at the same time.”
Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, did not go so far as to call for a security clearance review, instead saying the FBI investigation now being led by special counsel Robert Mueller was best equipped to get to the bottom of the issue.
Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday” that allegations that Kushner sought to set up a backchannel with Russia was “a rumor at this point,” adding: “I’ll trust Bob Mueller’s judgment.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Booker said he had “very serious concerns” but was not ready yet to call for Kushner’s security clearance to be revoked.
“That could be a potential outcome that I seek, but I want to understand, at least hear from, Jared Kushner as well as the administration about what was exactly going on there,” Booker said.