Confidants of U.S. President Donald Trump have reportedly been suggesting that Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and special adviser, take a leave of absence over the investigation of his alleged communications with Russia.
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ABC News' Jonathan Karl reported on Sunday that "even if he is ultimately completely cleared, he is at the center of this investigation right now, and you hear people close to the president quietly saying, is it too much and is it time for Jared to take a step back? Maybe even take a leave of absence from the White House."
"His office opens right into the Oval Office. He has taken on a portfolio bigger than anybody in the West Wing. And you hear people now very close to the president openly saying that it is too much. That he now finds himself at the center of this investigation," Karl added.
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.
Kushner 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.
Overhaul of White House staff
Meanwhile, Trump is considering overhauling his White House staff and bringing back top campaign strategists, frustrated by what he views as his team’s inability to contain the burgeoning crisis involving alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Expanding teams of lawyers and experienced public relations hands are being recruited to deal with the drumbeat of new revelations about Moscow’s interference and possible improper dealings with the Trump campaign and associates. The disclosures dogged the president during his first trip abroad since taking office and threaten to overwhelm and stall the agenda for his young administration.
As he mulls outside reinforcements to his operation, Trump returned late Saturday from his nine-day journey to a White House seemingly in crisis mode, with a barrage of reports hitting close to the Oval Office and involving Kushner.
A rally planned Thursday in Iowa was postponed due to “an unforeseen change” in Trump’s schedule.
After maintaining a limited social media presence throughout his trip, Trump on Sunday unleashed a furious flurry of tweets, lashing out at what he called the “fake news” media. He focused heavily on leaks — both those coming out of the White House and an intelligence leak blamed on Americans about this week’s deadly bombing at a concert in England.
On the bombing investigation Trump said: “British Prime Minister May was very angry that the info the U.K. gave to U.S. about Manchester was leaked. Gave me full details!”
Trump also said that “many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies.” He added that it is “very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers.”
Even when authorized, however, top officials in the Trump White House frequently request anonymity to brief reporters “on background,” meaning their names will not be disclosed.
The latest reports in the Russia matter said Kushner spoke with Russia’s ambassador to the United States about setting up secret communications with Moscow during the presidential transition.
While overseas, Trump’s longtime lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, joined a still-forming legal team to help the president shoulder the intensifying investigations into Russian interference in the election and his associates’ potential involvement. More attorneys with deep experience in Washington investigations are expected to be added, along with crisis communication experts, to help the White House in the weeks ahead.
“They need to quarantine this stuff and put the investigations in a separate communications operation,” said Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel for President Bill Clinton.
During the Monica Lewinsky investigation, the Clinton White House brought on a dedicated group of lawyers and a created a separate media operation to handle investigation-related inquiries so they didn’t completely subsume the president’s agenda.
Trump, according to one person familiar with his thinking, believed he was facing more of a communications problem than a legal one, despite the intensifying inquiries. The person, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations.
As he mulls changes, Trump has entertained bringing his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and former deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, formally back into the fold. Both Lewandowski and Bossie discussed the prospect with the president before his trip, according to one person told of the conversations.
Lewandowski’s return would be a particularly notable development, given the fact that he was fired by Trump after clashing with staff and Trump’s adult children. Nonetheless, Lewandowski has the trust of the president — an advantage that many of Trump’s aides lack.
Trump called his maiden trip abroad a “home run,” but while the White House had hoped it would serve as a reset, attention on the Russia probe has only increased.
Recently appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, is starting off an investigation with a broad mandate that will allow him to probe both the possible Russian influence and whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation by firing FBI Director James Comey.
Comey is expected to testify before Congress after Memorial Day about memos he kept on conversations with the president that pertained to the investigation.
The White House also grappled with reports that Kushner proposed setting up a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting. Kushner spoke with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., about creating the secret line to make it easier to hold sensitive discussions about the conflict in Syria, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The back channel was meant to connect Michael Flynn, who later became Trump’s first national security adviser, with Russian military leaders, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss private policy considerations and spoke on condition of anonymity. Flynn was fired in February, officials saying he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call.
Before departing Italy for the U.S., White House officials refused to address the reports about Kushner. But they did not dismiss the idea that the administration would go outside normal U.S. government and diplomatic channels for communications with other countries.
Other major issues await Trump at home. He has signaled he will make a decision on whether to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And the search continues for an FBI director to replace Comey.
On the policy front, he must defend his budget plan, and the Republican health care bill that narrowly passed the House faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Trump also has to decide soon on a Pentagon recommendation to add more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as well as boosting reinforcement for the beleaguered Afghan military.