The Washington Post reports that presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to set up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin. In itself, this is not necessarily surprising. The use of back channels, such as special emissaries and personal intermediaries, is almost as old as diplomacy itself. Historical agreements have been worked out and crises have been averted through secret channels that bypass established diplomatic institutions or communications. As I argued in December, the Trump administration’s desire to set up a back channel to reduce tensions — or achieve detente — was not illegal, nor was it unprecedented. Still, Kushner may be in trouble, depending on the details.

The revelation that Kushner may have requested the use of Russian secure communications is baffling. If true, the request was both unusual and unprecedented. The rationale could be as simple as a desire to keep communications with a rival power compartmentalized in the White House, it could have been a mistake of inexperience, it could have had a nefarious purpose, or it could be something else or a combination of reasons. We will not know until this is investigated, and it appears that the public won’t have to wait decades for declassification.

Other presidents have set up back channels too

The Trump team isn’t the first to want to shield its discussions with the Russians. Richard M. Nixon’s administration did something similar. According to a February 1969 memo written by Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin — who served before six American presidents, from Kennedy through Reagan — Henry Kissinger told him that the Nixon administration wanted to conduct a “most confidential exchange of views” with the Kremlin because, “The Soviet side . . . knows how to maintain confidentiality; but in our State Department, unfortunately, there are occasional leaks of information to the press.”

The kind of leaks that worried Kissinger are still an issue today. The Post’s report that Kisylak reported Kushner’s proposal on Dec. 1 or 2 is “according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials.” It is extremely unlikely, for obvious reasons, that these U.S. officials had permission from the president to share this information with the media.

But back channels can be used in different ways

The most explosive possible allegations aren’t that back channels were used during the transition. They are that secret channels were used before the election so that the Kremlin could collude with the Trump campaign. Showing that would require a high burden of proof, which has not been met yet.

Nevertheless, the optics do not look good for Kushner. The U.S. government’s unanimous assessment is that the Russian special services conducted an information operation to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. We do not know the context in which Kushner wanted secure communication with Russia, and the details demand investigation.

The Russians today, like their Soviet predecessors during the Cold War, will meddle when they think they can get away with it. According to Dobrynin’s memoir, “In Confidence,” the Soviet government in 1968 approached the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, to offer assistance in defeating Nixon. The Kremlin distrusted Nixon for his history of red-baiting and thought the Soviet Union could have better relations with Humphrey. To his great credit, Humphrey deflected the offer. Dobrynin was also relieved since he had advised the Kremlin against interfering with a U.S. election, because, he believed, “if discovered [it] certainly would have backfired.” Nevertheless, it did not prevent the Russians from investigating if they could get Humphrey to bite.

One key question is whether others in the administration knew and approved

When Henry Kissinger met with known Russian diplomats or intelligence operatives, he kept FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed. Similarly, Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s brother and the U.S. attorney general, kept the FBI informed of his back-channel meetings with Soviet intermediaries during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Keeping those responsible for counterintelligence in the loop can help avoid the appearance of impropriety. If Kushner kept counterintelligence officials informed, then his situation may look better.

Then again, policymakers may use back channels intentionally to exclude other parts of the government. My book, “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow,” cites one particularly egregious example involving Kissinger, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev:

“. . . in May 1972, just days before the departure to the Moscow summit, Nixon told Kissinger, ‘Be sure you warn Gromyko and obviously Brezhnev that they’ve got to be very careful not to talk about the special channel where Rogers is involved.’ The President cautioned, ‘Because then we’d have to explain what the hell it is to him.’ Even at this late date, approaching the end of the first term, Nixon wanted to keep his own secretary of state and personal friend, Rogers, in the dark.”

 

How the administration responds to leaks is key

There is one important final question. The new revelations are likely to lead to increased paranoia within the Trump administration about leakers undermining the president and his family and close associates. If the White House responds in a heavy-handed way, it may actually be counterproductive and reinforce the image that it is trying to cover up its activities. Nixon remains a cautionary example. His White House Special Investigative Unit — the “plumbers” of Watergate infamy — became entangled with his reelection campaign, leading eventually to his political downfall. Ironically, the plumbers started with legitimate national security interests of plugging leaks in the wake of the Pentagon Papers release, the 1970s equivalent of the WikiLeaks scandals.

[Click here to listen to the taped Nixon-Kissinger conversation described above. Click here to read the conversation transcript.]

Richard A. Moss is an associate research professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies.

Author’s note: The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or its components.