U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed many unidentified sources as phony and said leaks from the White House were “fake news” on Sunday, following reports his son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to set up a secret channel of communications with Moscow before Trump took office.
Trump returned to the White House after a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe that ended on Saturday to face more questions about alleged communications between Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington.
“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 wrote in a series of Twitter posts on Sunday.
Shortly after the tweets, Trump‘s Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, made the rounds of Sunday television news shows to praise any so-called back channel communications, especially with Russia, as “a good thing.”
The White House faces mounting questions about potential ties between Russia and Trump‘s presidential campaign, which are also the subject of criminal and congressional investigations. Trump officials were preparing to establish a “war room” to address an issue that has begun to dominate his young presidency.
Kushner, who is married to Trump‘s daughter Ivanka, had contacts with Moscow in December about opening a secret back channel of communications, according to news reports published while Trump was away on his trip.
The 36-year-old Kushner, a real estate developer with no previous government experience, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.
Contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials during the campaign coincided with what U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was a Kremlin effort through computer hacking, fake news and propaganda to boost Trump‘s chances of winning the White House.
White House officials defended the concept of secret communications channels without commenting specifically on the Kushner case. National security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters on Saturday that so-called back-channeling was not unusual.
Homeland Security Secretary Kelly carried the same message in a series of television appearances on Sunday.
“It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable,” he said on ABC’s This Week program. “Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organizations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing.”
Kelly told Fox News Sunday there was nothing wrong with the Trump transition team trying to build relationships with the Russians as they prepared to take over the White House.
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, rejected the White House officials’ defense of such communications with Russia. He said they may be used in situations including secret talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan or for the release of hostages.
“But for people associated with the campaign after that campaign has ended and where the Russians during that campaign were helping you, to try to establish a back channel and hide it from your own government, that’s a serious allegation,” he said.
Schiff was particularly concerned about a Washington Post report that the back channel would have been conducted at a Russian diplomatic facility to avoid monitoring in U.S. communications systems. “You have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversation from?” he asked on ABC.
Kelly, asked on ABC about the reported plan to use Russian equipment or facilities, said, “I don’t know if all of that is true.”
Schiff said he expected Kushner, who serves as an unpaid adviser to Trump, to appear before his committee and suggested his security clearance be reviewed.
Kushner initially had come to the attention of FBI investigators last year as they began scrutinizing former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s connections with Russian officials, the two sources told Reuters.