Then, The Washington Post published a bombshell report that at least four countries had discussed how to use Kushner’s sparse experience, financial troubles and intricate business arrangements to manipulate him.
The triple blows at Trump’s inner circle added to the already incredible personal, political and legal pressure heaped on the President and the strain on those staffing his turbulent presidency.
They come at a moment when Mueller’s probe is gathering pace, cranking out indictments of Trump associates, and appears to be posing a more severe threat to the President, Kushner and other important associates.
The developments were more than a personal and public humiliation to Kushner, who has played an influential, if mysterious, role in the administration.
They put the sustainability of his role as a top foreign policy adviser to Trump in doubt because he will have access to far fewer government secrets and cannot see the Presidential Daily Brief, the collection of the spy community’s treasures prepared for the commander in chief.
The downgrade appears to make it all but impossible for Kushner to do his job even though the White House and his lawyer say that is not the case.
But how for example can he carry out his duties running the Middle East peace process or liaising with top Gulf powers if he is not privy to the latest intelligence about his interlocutors or other key regional players like Iran?
Similarly, Kushner could find himself asked to leave sensitive meetings in the White House or force top intelligence or foreign policy officials to avoid the most sensitive subjects in meetings that he is in with the President.
“He can’t see intercepted communications — that’s top secret, he’s now downgraded to secret … he can’t see the most secret CIA information about their informants,” said Phil Mudd, a former CIA and FBI official who is now a CNN national security analyst.
“He can’t see some of the stuff our Western allies see,” he added.
Ultimately, unless Kushner is cleared by the FBI to receive a permanent security clearance or gets a waiver from the President his diminished role will spur fresh speculation about his longevity as a White House staffer.
His departure and potentially that of his wife Ivanka Trump, who just controversially led a US mission to South Korea’s Winter Olympics at a time of flaring nuclear tensions with North Korea, would mark a huge earthquake in Trump world.
As it is, the couple will see their “influence diminished,” a GOP source close to the White House told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Fresh doubts over Kushner’s position also risked reflecting poorly on Trump, given that the President made a close family member who was apparently unqualified or at risk of being compromised by foreign powers such a pivotal adviser.
After all, Trump pledged to hire the most qualified people in the world to serve in his administration, and made the alleged mishandling of classified material by his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton a key argument of his campaign.
Trump was already under ethical fire for breaking anti-nepotism conventions by hiring family members. Kushner’s new troubles will make those questions even more acute.
“This is a stunning blow to President Trump,” said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali, noting that Kushner was one of the few senior advisers with whom Trump felt comfortable.
“This is a big deal … he must be fuming,” Naftali told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
The idea that key foreign countries, including Mexico, Israel, China and the United Arab Emirates had acted on conversations about how to manipulate Kushner, according to current and former US officials familiar with intelligence reports cited by the Post, is also a problem.
After all, the optics of a senior presidential adviser sitting down with leaders who have been publicly reported to have tried to compromise him would weaken his leverage.
The political implications of the Kushner news are less profound than the national security questions but no less intriguing.
The strike against Kushner is a bold move by Kelly who has worked to remove what he sees a distracting elements around the President — such as former top political adviser Steve Bannon and former foreign policy aide Sebastian Gorka. But his decision to take on the President’s son-in-law is the most significant and potentially risky coup yet.
Last week, Trump told reporters he would let Kelly decide what to do about his son-in-law’s clearance but stressed that Kushner had done an “outstanding job.” The comment was seen by many in Washington as a broad hint to Kelly that the President wanted Kushner kept in the loop.
Now any attempt by Trump to contradict Kelly’s move would shatter the chief of staff’s authority and make his position all but impossible. But if Kelly prevails, his decision on Kushner will be regarded as a gutsy political victory and would undercut speculation he cannot last much longer in the White House.
Signs that Mueller is looking into Trump’s finances meanwhile add a layer of intensity to the drama surrounding his investigation.
The President has previously warned that he would not tolerate the special counsel seeking such information, so speculation about whether Trump will try to fire Mueller will be revived.
While there is no indication so far of any wrongdoing by Trump or collusion with a Russian election meddling effort, the report again poses the question of whether his past business dealings could have been a target for any Russian attempt to compromise him.
Any sense on the part of the President that the walls are closing in will not have been helped by Tuesday’s testimony to a House committee by Hope Hicks, his communications director and close campaign aide.
Representatives of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have quietly contacted high-powered criminal lawyers about potentially representing him in the wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election, according to three people briefed on the matter.
Some of Mr. Kushner’s allies have raised questions about the link between his current lawyer, Jamie S. Gorelick, and Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel appointed to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one of the people who spoke on condition of anonymity. Before the Justice Department named him to the special counsel post, Mr. Mueller was a law partner with Ms. Gorelick at the Washington firm of Wilmer Hale.
Such connections are common in Washington legal circles and are often resolved by an acknowledgment from the client of the possible conflict. In this case, Ms. Gorelick urged Mr. Kushner to consider other representation first.
In recent days, Mr. Kushner has had discussions with at least one prominent trial lawyer, one of the people said. And if Mr. Kushner chooses to hire a new lawyer, this person may either supplement or replace Ms. Gorelick’s team.
So far, Mr. Kushner’s legal team remains unchanged. Ms. Gorelick, who has repeatedly said Mr. Kushner will cooperate with all Russia-related inquiries, is preparing him for a meeting with investigators for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Kushner also provided a statement on Sunday from Ms. Gorelick describing the recent discussions with other lawyers as seeking advice as opposed to replacing or adding to his legal team.
“After the appointment of our former partner Robert Mueller as special counsel, we advised Mr. Kushner to obtain the independent advice of a lawyer with appropriate experience as to whether he should continue with us as his counsel,” the statement from Ms. Gorelick said.
The outreach to other lawyers began last month, the people briefed on the matter said, when news reports revealed that at a meeting with Russia’s ambassador in December, Mr. Kushner had reportedly discussed establishing a secret communication channel between the Trump transition team and Moscow. Mr. Mueller’s investigators are examining Mr. Kushner’s contacts with Russian officials as part of a broader investigation into whether any Trump advisers colluded in Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Trump has denounced Mr. Mueller’s investigation, describing it on Twitter on Thursday as a “witch hunt” led by “some very bad and conflicted people.”
Given the president’s sentiments, he might view any link to Mr. Mueller with suspicion, including Ms. Gorelick’s representation of Mr. Kushner, according to one person who has been contacted about the matter. An official close to the president disputed that, saying Mr. Trump is pleased with Ms. Gorelick’s representation of his son-in-law.
Although Ms. Gorelick is a well-known lawyer who has often handled complex cases involving government investigations — and some of her colleagues on her team are noted courtroom litigators — she is also not primarily a trial lawyer.
In contrast, people within Mr. Kushner’s circle recently reached out to some courtroom litigators about possibly joining his legal team. Among the lawyers contacted, one person said, was Abbe D. Lowell, a prominent trial lawyer whose previous clients include Jack Abramoff, the powerful Republican lobbyist, in a corruption scandal that shook Washington in 2005. Mr. Lowell is currently defending Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, against federal corruption charges.
Mr. Lowell declined to comment.
The outreach has come as a number of White House officials have mulled whether to hire personal lawyers. An aide to Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that Mr. Pence had retained Richard Cullen. Other White House officials are also considering hiring lawyers, and on Friday, the president added a well-known litigator, John M. Dowd, to his legal team.
Investigators have been interested for months in Mr. Kushner’s meetings with Russian officials during the presidential transition. The meetings included a session with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak.
The White House has noted that transition teams typically meet with foreign officials, and that Mr. Kushner at the time was serving as a liaison to foreign governments and officials. He reportedly met with dozens of officials from a number of countries.
At Mr. Kislyak’s request, Mr. Kushner also met with Sergey N. Gorkov, the head of the state-owned development bank Vnesheconombank. The bank is wholly owned by the Russian state and is intertwined with Russian intelligence.
F.B.I. and congressional investigators are scrutinizing whether Mr. Kushner may have met with Mr. Gorkov to help establish a direct line to Mr. Putin, or for reasons not cited by the White House.
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Tensions are building inside the Justice Department as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein contemplates whether he will become a witness in the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections.
Rosenstein, in office for less than two months, is the top Justice official overseeing the probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself.
But Rosenstein could end up recusing himself, too, Justice officials say, in part because he played a role in President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. The Comey dismissal could become part of a widening investigation into whether the President tried to interfere with the ongoing Russia probe.
Officials familiar with the matter describe friction on the Justice Department’s fourth and fifth floors, home to the suite of offices belonging to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general, respectively, in part because of Rosenstein’s handling of the Russia matter.
Rosenstein was among those who advised Sessions to recuse himself, according to officials briefed on the matter. But then Rosenstein made the surprise move to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation, a development that people close to Sessions and Trump believe has worsened matters for everyone involved.
Sessions learned of the Mueller appointment at about the same time that the press was told, according to people briefed on the matter. The attorney general was at a White House meeting when the notification came from Rosenstein, prompting the enraged President to scold the attorney general for the turn of events. Trump had viewed Sessions’ recusal as unnecessary, even though Justice Department regulations made it almost impossible to avoid.
The focus on Rosenstein sharpened Friday because the President attacked the deputy attorney general in a tweet, blaming him for what he terms a “witch hunt.”
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” the President tweeted.
The President’s tweet — seeming to confirm the probe based on news reports — came as a surprise to the President’s own legal team, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Mueller continues to hire a team of lawyers, and with FBI investigators is gathering information that is widely expected to lead to a formal investigation into whether President Trump attempted to interfere in the investigation. Comey’s firing likely will be part of that probe.
Special counsel members donated to Dems02:26
Rosenstein told the Associated Press earlier this month that when he hired Mueller he discussed the possibility of having recuse himself “if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation” and if recusal is necessary.
The strain on Rosenstein has increasingly become visible in recent weeks, according to Justice officials.
At a ceremony last month to welcome Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the Justice Department’s third-ranking official, Rosenstein joked awkwardly about being at the center of criticism since taking office, according to people who were in the room.
If Rosenstein recuses himself, Brand, a Trump appointee, would become the top Justice official overseeing Mueller’s work.
On Thursday night, he issued a statement lashing out at news stories sourced to anonymous officials and that he believes are causing the President and Republicans to attack the Justice Department, the FBI and Mueller for alleged leaks.
Rosenstein’s unusual statement, which he issued over the objections of some advisers, said in part: “Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials.'”
A Justice official said Rosenstein was motivated in part because of frustration that recent news stories have unfairly brought on a torrent of “leak” accusations against the FBI and Mueller’s team.
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