Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is defending an alleged effort by top White House adviser Jared Kushner to create back-channel communications with Russia, as the Trump administration seeks to quell mounting questions over secret ties to the Kremlin.
Speaking on Sunday’s news shows, Kelly said he didn’t know whether the reports by The Associated Press and other news outlets involving Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, were true.
But Kelly said such back-channel communications don’t bother him and would not be harmful to US security interests.
“It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable,” Kelly said.
“Any way that you can communicate with people, particularly organisations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing.”
Congressional Democrats demanded to hear directly from Kushner over allegations of the proposed secret back-channel, saying his security clearance may need to be revoked.
But Trump immediately railed against administration leaks in a flurry of tweets Sunday, calling them “fabricated lies”.
Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said it was “obviously very concerning” if a key Trump campaign figure was possibly seeking secret communications during the transition period with a country that intelligence experts say intervened in the 2016 US presidential election.
Schiff said the government needed to “get to the bottom” of the matter and urged a review of Kushner’s security clearance “to find out whether he was truthful”.
“If not, then there’s no way he can maintain that kind of a clearance,” Schiff said.
The AP and other news organizations reported that Kushner in December proposed a back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team.
Kushner spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about facilitating sensitive discussions to explore the incoming administration’s options with Russia as it developed its Syria policy.
The intent was to connect Trump’s chief national security adviser at the time, Michael Flynn, with Russian military leaders, a person familiar with the discussions told the AP.
The person wasn’t authorised to publicly discuss private policy deliberations and insisted on anonymity.
Russia, a pivotal player in Syria, has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, often at the expense of civilians and at odds with US policy during Syria’s long civil war.
The White House did not acknowledge the meeting or Kushner’s attendance until March. At the time, a White House official dismissed it as a brief courtesy meeting.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, described the latest allegations involving Kushner as “serious” and called for a thorough investigation.
“He needs to answer for what was happening at the time,” Booker said.
“What’s worrying me are the patterns we’re seeing. So one is this administration not talking about our values, cosying up to authoritarian leaders. And the other pattern we have is just a continuous drumbeat of inappropriate contacts with the Russians.”
Lawyers for Kushner said he was willing to talk with federal and congressional investigators about his foreign contacts and his work on the Trump campaign.
The disclosure of the back channel has put the White House on the defensive. Just back from visiting the Middle East and Europe, Trump on Sunday dismissed recent reports as “fake news.”