US probe into Trump links to Russia hots up

Traditional Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls also known as nesting dolls, illustrated with the images of US President Donald J. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Traditional Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls also known as nesting dolls, illustrated with the images of US President Donald J. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.PHOTO: EPA

Special counsel leading investigation gets to work as President rallies behind son-in-law

WASHINGTON • The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election, Mr Robert Mueller, is getting down to work quickly, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

It said he has been building a team, designing a budget and forcing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to withhold from Congress any documents he may be interested in - all in just a week on the job.

Mr Mueller, a respected former FBI director, is leading a wide investigation into any Trump connections to Russia's alleged election interference, while the Senate and House intelligence committees are also leading their own investigations, but not with an eye to bringing criminal charges. The House Oversight Committee and the senate Judiciary Committee are also pursuing inquiries.

Meanwhile, the White House is braced for a fresh wave of scrutiny as Mr Trump on Monday rallied behind his embattled son-in-law and top aide, Mr Jared Kushner.

Mr Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to mark Memorial Day, but had to quickly pivot to the Russia uproar after returning to Washington last Saturday from his first international trip since taking office.

The eve of his return had brought the biggest story to date: A Washington Post report about Mr Kushner's alleged proposal to the Russians to create a secret channel out of the reach of US spymasters.

Mr Donald Trump exchanging high fives with the son of a US marine who was killed in training, as the boy's mother looks on, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which the US President visited on Monday to mark Memorial Day.
Mr Donald Trump exchanging high fives with the son of a US marine who was killed in training, as the boy's mother looks on, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which the US President visited on Monday to mark Memorial Day. PHOTO: REUTERS

The talks between Mr Kushner and the Russians, if confirmed, would raise new questions about the Trump team's relationship with Moscow, which US intelligence agencies say tried to sway last November's election .

A parade of senior administration officials tried to downplay the story, saying it was not all that unusual to establish "back-channel" ties with a foreign government.

NOT UNUSUAL

We have back-channel communication with a number of countries... I would not be concerned about it.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER H.R. MCMASTER, on Mr Jared Kushner's alleged proposal to the Russians to create a secret channel out of the reach of US spymasters.

 

Mr Trump's National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster said that generally speaking, "we have back-channel communication with a number of countries... I would not be concerned about it". His comments were echoed by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

But the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the Russian election meddling, was dubious.

"You have to ask, well, who are they hiding the conversations from?" Representative Adam Schiff said in an interview with ABC News.

He added: "Ultimately, we're going to want Mr Kushner to come before the committee."

Mr Kushner made his secret communications proposal on Dec 1 or 2 last year at Trump Tower in New York, according to intercepts of Russian communications reviewed by US officials, the Washington Post reported last Friday.

Mr Michael Flynn, who was Mr Trump's national security adviser for just 24 days before being fired amid questions about meetings he held with the Russian ambassador, was also present, the newspaper reported.

US media said the White House is creating a new rapid-fire communications unit to respond to the controversy, led by Mr Kushner himself, with senior presidential adviser Steve Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Some top Republicans cast doubts on the Post's report, suggesting that the whole episode may be a Russian ruse to throw America's political system into a tailspin.

And Mr Trump, who had been uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter during his nine-day trip abroad, resumed tweeting on Sunday, dismissing allegations of Russia ties as "fake news" and "fabricated lies".

"Whenever you see the words 'sources say' in the fake news media, and they don't mention names, it is very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!" the US leader wrote.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'US probe into Trump links to Russia hots up'. Print Edition | Subscribe