Whatever respite President Trump may have received from his nine-day overseas trip came to an abrupt end Sunday as administration allies sought to beat back allegations about his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, while the leader of Europe’s most powerful nation suggested the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally.
“The era in which we could rely completely on others is gone, at least partially,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, said during a campaign speech in Munich. “I have experienced that over the last several days.”
“It is now time that we really take our own fate into our own hands,” she added.
Trump, who had been on a Twitter fast during much of his trip, returned to his favorite social media platform Sunday morning, voicing frustration over the widening investigation into ties between people in his inner circle and Russia.
“It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media,” he wrote.
The latest turn in the leak-driven narrative came Friday with a Washington Post report that during the transition, Kushner had talked with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about using Russian equipment and diplomatic facilities to set up a communications channel between Trump emissaries and Moscow the U.S. intelligence would not be able to monitor.
Despite Trump’s broadside about fake news, administration officials Sunday did not deny the report. Instead, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly — echoing a position taken a day before by national security advisor H.R. McMaster — said there was nothing inherently wrong with an incoming presidential administration establishing “back channel” communications with a foreign power such as Russia.
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Kelly said the principle of establishing such contacts during a presidential transition “doesn't bother me,” describing it as a legitimate means of building relationships.
“I think that any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing,” he said.
Kelly did not address the question of using Russian communications channels from a Russian diplomatic outpost to shield those discussions.
In a separate interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kelly defended the integrity of Kushner, whose involvement in communications with Russia has brought the investigation closer than ever to Trump personally.
Calling Kushner “a great guy, a decent guy,” the Homeland Security secretary said the president’s son-in-law’s “No. 1 interest, really, is the nation.”
Democrats, not surprisingly, had a less forgiving view. A leader of the congressional investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election said Kushner should perhaps be denied access to the nation’s most closely held secrets.
Back-channel communications might be harmless “in the abstract,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said on ABC’s “This Week,” but not in the context of serious concerns about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Enough questions have been raised about Kushner’s contact with Russian officials — and whether he had been forthcoming about them -- that his access to classified intelligence should be reviewed, said Schiff, a former prosecutor.
“I think we need to get to the bottom of these allegations,” he said. “But I do think there ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid. If not, then there’s no way he can maintain that kind of a clearance.”
“I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community – very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), for whose campaigns Kushner once held a fundraiser, said the president’s son-in-law “needs to answer” for his actions. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Booker cited a “continuous drumbeat of inappropriate contacts with the Russians” by members of Trump’s team.
The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, also said any such contacts were viewed at the time as worrisome, especially what had already come to light about Russian election interference.
“I will tell you that my dashboard warning light was clearly on,” he said without addressing the specific allegations about the president’s son-in-law’s encounters with Kremlin-linked figures.
The FBI, a special counsel and congressional committees are probing Russian interference in the presidential campaign and whether the Trump camp colluded in it. The U.S. intelligence community says Russian cyberattacks were meant to boost Trump and harm his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The sense of a White House under intensified siege was heightened by the sobering comments from Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician.
“Naturally, we’ll maintain our friendship with the United States … wherever possible,” Merkel said. “But we have to realize that we Europeans are going to have to fight on our own behalf.”
Although Trump touted “big results” in a tweet Sunday about his Europe trip, Merkel’s comments marked a potentially far-reaching negative assessment of his meetings with European Union officials and NATO heads of state in Brussels and the leaders of major industrialized nations at the Group of 7 summit in Sicily.
In Brussels, Trump had rattled allies by declining to explicitly endorse the NATO alliance’s bedrock common defense pledge. At both meetings, he also disagreed with the Europeans over efforts to combat global warming.
Merkel did not mention Trump by name. But in remarks earlier in the weekend, before leaving Sicily, she told reporters that the discussion with him on climate change, in particular, had been “extremely difficult, indeed unsatisfying. It’s a situation where there are six countries lined up against one.”
Trump had delayed until after the G7 meeting in making a decision about whether the U.S. should withdraw from the landmark Paris climate accord. He faces a choice of breaking with major U.S. allies and abandoning the agreement, or to sticking with it and risking alienating some his most ardent supporters.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said Trump remained “wide open” on the issue. The president said in a tweet that he would make a decision this week.
Special correspondent Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.