Jared Kushner interview triggers new security fears over Russia approach
Jared Kushner’s interview over the weekend, in which he said he did not know if he would alert the FBI if approached privately again by Russia, has revived questions about his White House security clearance.
The admission came in an interview with Axios on HBO in which Kushner seemed unprepared for a range of questions – including several on whether his father-in-law, Donald Trump, is a racist.
The answers which drew the most attention, however, were in a section of the interview devoted to his role in a June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian Kremlin-linked lawyer promising to bring damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Asked why an approach by a hostile power did not immediately lead him to call the FBI, Kushner became defensive and suggested the question was “self-righteous”.
“Let me put you in my shoes at that time. OK, I’m running three companies, I’m helping run the campaign. I get an email that says show up at 4 instead of 3 to a meeting that I had been told about earlier that I didn’t know what the hell it was about,” Kushner said.
He claimed not to know the meeting was set up in Trump Tower in order to receive Russian-sourced information, even after it was pointed out to him that the email telling him about the meeting had the subject line: “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential.”
“Again, I would get about 250 emails a day, and so I literally saw show up at 4,” Kushner said. “I showed up at 4.”
Kushner also failed to explain why such a busy executive would attend a meeting in the middle of the afternoon without knowing what it was about.
In the Axios interview, Kushner was also asked: “Would you call the FBI if it happened again?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s hard to do hypotheticals, but the reality is, is that we were not given anything that was salacious.”
The suggestion that he might not report an approach, even though he now has (controversial) top security clearance, astonished former officials who have had to go through the stringent vetting procedures.
“This shows a lack of understanding of our legal system when it comes to Russia,” said Brett Bruen, global engagement director in the Obama White House. “Failing to report it is a clear security violation.”
Sam Vinograd, who also worked in the Obama national security council, told CNN: “Jared Kushner basically just put a for sale sign on his forehead during this interview saying on national television he may not contact the FBI if a hostile foreign power contacts him. That really sends a message to Russia and any other foreign actor that Jared Kushner may be open for business during this 2020 campaign cycle.”
Trump reportedly ordered Kushner to be provided top secret security clearance, overruling the judgment of administration officials concerned about undeclared foreign entanglements from Kushner’s business meetings.
Kushner staunchly defended the president, particularly on the charge of racism. But when asked whether “birtherism” – a groundless conspiracy theory Trump helped propagate suggesting that Obama had been born abroad – was racist, Kushner was evasive, simply repeating: “I wasn’t involved in that.”
“In retrospect, it’s clear why Jared Kushner rarely does interviews,” Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said “Politically it was a disaster. He seemed unprepared … and the answers are laughable.”
At one point towards the end of the interview, Kushner said that one of the best facets of his father-in-law was his readiness to hire people who were not “qualified” making air quotes when he said the word.
Kushner, whose experience before the White House was working in his family’s property business, has been given some of the most important and complex portfolios, including Middle East peace and immigration.
“What is astonishing is that he was put in charge of an awful lot of policy, when he was not remotely qualified,” Drezner said. “Two years on, it’s not obvious he has learnt anything.”