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Russia scandal casts uncertainty over Kushner’s future role

Once the untouchable son-in-law in a White House where top aides jockey for the president’s ear, Jared Kushner has now been cast in a new role: reassuring people that he’s not going to resign, while colleagues question whether he can survive politically.

Any victory lap Kushner hoped to enjoy after pulling off a successful presidential foreign trip to the Middle East was cut short after the Washington Post reported that during the transition he discussed setting up a secret backchannel with the Russian Ambassador. He also failed to disclose earlier phone calls with Russian officials, according to a Reuters report.

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The backchannel was never established. But the news puts Kushner squarely in the middle of a wide-ranging FBI investigation into whether Trump campaign advisers were working with Russian operatives to influence the results of the 2016 election.

And it means that the main architect of Trump’s visit to the Middle East is now the lead distraction that will greet the president, who was flying home from nine days abroad on Saturday, returning from what was seen as overall a successful foreign trip.

“It’s clear that Jared Kushner will be under intense scrutiny at a time when his father-in-law has named him everything but Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a former top White House adviser to President Barack Obama. “It’s bad for the prospects of calm at the White House.”

Kushner’s allies are quick to point out that he hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, has said he volunteered to share with Congress anything he knows about meetings with the Russians. People familiar with the matter also speculated that Kislyak may have exaggerated Kushner’s role in his version of events.

A senior administration official said there was widespread concern, predating the foreign trip, that Kushner was in trouble – but “no one that I know has been asked to provide documents” and that it wasn’t talked about openly in the White House or staff meetings.

“No one knows what to make of it because he’s there every day, making decisions, in the Oval,” this person said. “So everyone just tries to act normal.”

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

But outside of Kushner’s small circle of trust – a group that includes Kushner’s wife Ivanka Trump, and advisers Hope Hicks, Josh Raffel, Dina Powell, Gary Cohn, Chris Liddell and Reed Cordish – many West Wing advisers are simultaneously rattled by the backchannel revelations, and feeling a sense of schadenfreude.

The focus on a family member also brings the Russia-related heat closer to Trump. Kushner has risen so quickly in the White House that his colleagues grumble about “principal confusion” — when a staffer thinks that the reflected spotlight of the boss is actually shining on him. Colleagues have rolled their eyes that Kushner has hired a communications adviser to work on his own portfolio. That aide, Raffel, traveled abroad with him to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Rome.

Kushner, who some say has sealed himself off from the competing White House power centers, may now be in a position of needing allies. And the pool of people in New York City eager to come to his defense has shrunk.

Internally at the White House, according to multiple sources, there is a feeling of resentment among people about Kushner’s special status as a family member, and a feeling that it’s about time for him to have a turn under the gun.

There is also a sense of uncertainty about how long Kushner and Ivanka Trump – who associates say likes, but doesn’t love, Washington – are planning to stick it out. Some have noted that they rent their Kalorama mansion, which allows them to keep their options of moving back to Manhattan more open.

But for now, according to a person familiar with the situation, Kushner isn’t going anywhere.

Jared Kushner is pictured.

On Friday, a White House official said, Kushner was back in his West Wing office and had a working lunch with chief of staff Reince Priebus to recap the trip.

Kushner, who flew home from Rome commercial on Thursday with his wife, Ivanka, after deciding a week earlier to cut his trip short, is not easily ruffled, this person said. His plan moving forward is to keep his head down and focus on his work, including turning his attention back to building his Office of American Innovation now that the foreign trip is behind him.

The news about Kushner, whose face blanketed cable news on Saturday, overshadowed Trump’s foreign trip on its final day.

At a press briefing in Taormina on Friday, White House officials were peppered with questions about Kushner’s role, and tried to downplay the significance of the alleged backchannel plan.

“We have backchannel communications with a number of countries,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner so I’m not concerned.”

Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, a close Kushner ally, added: “We’re not going to comment on Jared.”

Another official noted that it was Kushner’s conversations with foreign officials during the transition that allowed him to form relationships with the Saudis and pull off a successful first foreign trip for Trump. They also pointed to the good relationships with China and Mexico, that they credited to “backchannel” style relationships Kushner developed with those countries during the campaign.

But many outside observers pointed to Kushner’s naiveté in understanding the need for caution when it comes to handling relationships with Moscow.

The spotlight on Kushner’s involvement with the Russians comes at a time when the powerful son-in-law has been telling associates that he is frustrated with his job.

Two associates who have spoken to Kushner in recent weeks described him as “unhappy” and “miserable,” in part because he has not been able to make the changes he wants to under his father-in-law. Kushner, the source said, has recently seemed resigned to the fact that the internal dysfunction that has defined the first months of Trump’s administration is unlikely to pass. “He’s still trying to tell people it will improve but he seems like he was trying to convince himself,” the source said.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (L), chief political strategist Steve Bannon (R), and senior policital advisor Stephen Miller (C) walk to a waiting Marine One helicopter while departing the White House with U.S. President Donald Trump April 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to travel to an event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin later today. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Others, however, said there’s a healthy recognition that this is what it’s like to be in the Trump White House: a successful foreign trip one week, drowned out by negative headlines the following.

Meanwhile, Democrats said they are planning to make Kushner a focus in the coming weeks.

“There is no way Jared Kushner should have a top-level security clearance right now,” said Brian Fallon, who served as press secretary to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and before that as a spokesman for the Department of Justice. “In light of what we now know he discussed with Kislyak, it is impossible to believe Kushner’s omission of that secret meeting from his clearance application form was an accident. His clearance should be stripped at least until the FBI gets to the bottom of this.”

He added: “If Republicans will not join in demanding this of the White House, Democrats would be more than justified in grinding the Senate to a halt and opposing any new Trump nominees.”

And Senate Democrats said that they were planning to use the latest Russia-related crisis to increase pressure on attaching Russia sanctions to the Iran sanctions bill that passed the Foreign Relations Committee last week. One source on the Hill said many Democrats don’t want that bill to move without Russia sanctions bill alongside it, and that pressure will now only increase.

Kushner’s attorney, Gorelick, said she was not available to speak on Saturday. On Friday, she said in a statement that Kushner had “no recollection” of the calls reported by Reuters but did not respond directly to reports concerning the backchannel communications.

Tara Palmeri contributed reporting.

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