President Donald Trump headed home Saturday to confront a growing political and legal threat, as his top aides tried to contain the fallout from reports that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a focus of investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the president's campaign and transition teams.
As Trump ended a nine-day overseas trip that aides considered the most successful stretch of his presidency, he was returning to a crisis that had only grown in his absence. The White House canceled a presidential trip to Iowa in the coming days and was putting together a damage-control plan to expand the president's legal team, reorganize his communications staff and wall off a scandal that has jeopardized his agenda and now threatens to engulf his family.
Trump's private legal team, led by his New York lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, was preparing to meet in Washington to face fresh questions about contacts between Kushner and representatives of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The president may meet with Kasowitz as early as today, and aides have recruited a series of prominent Washington lawyers with experience in political investigations for Trump to interview in hopes that they might join the legal team.
Kushner, who organized the president's Middle East stops at the start of the foreign trip, chose to return to Washington with several days yet to go and has been unusually subdued since then. But he has no plans to step down from his role as senior adviser or to reduce his duties, people close to him told the New York Times.
Still, there are signs that Kushner is tiring of the nonstop combat and the damage to his reputation. He has told friends that he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have made no long-term commitment to remain by Trump's side, saying they would review every six months whether to return to private life in New York.
Kushner's troubles are only one facet of the crisis. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, the president's chief strategist, also dropped off Trump's trip early, in part to return to deal with the political furor over the Russia investigations and the decision to fire James Comey as FBI director.
The White House was trying to figure out how to respond to reports that Kushner had spoken in December with Russia's ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about establishing a secret channel between his father-in-law's transition team and Moscow to discuss the war in Syria and other issues. The Washington Post first reported on the suggestion Friday, and three people informed about it confirmed it to the New York Times.
The discussion took place at Trump Tower at a meeting that also included Michael Flynn, who served briefly as Trump's national security adviser until being forced out when it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about a separate telephone conversation he had with Kislyak. It was unclear who first proposed the secret communications channel, but the idea was for Flynn to speak directly with a Russian military official. The channel was never set up.
As reports emerged about investigators' focus on Kushner, he and Ivanka Trump discussed the possibility of having Donald F. McGahn, the White House counsel, issue a statement denying that McGahn had been contacted by federal officials about Kushner. McGahn, who has been increasingly uneasy in his role since Trump ignored his advice to delay Comey's dismissal, said he was not the person to write such a statement, suggesting that doing so would create a precedent requiring a response to each new report. Kushner's private lawyer issued a statement instead.
The reports about Kushner dominated an end-of-trip briefing for reporters in Taormina, Italy, where Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, his top economic adviser, declined to comment specifically on Kushner but sought to play down the significance of the disclosures.
Trump's sons Don Jr. and Eric, who now run the family business, have grown frustrated by the lack of a solid support system or effective surrogate operation to combat the spate of negative reports, three people who have spoken with them told the New York Times. The sons spent Thursday at the Republican National Committee headquarters, and they had a discussion with at least one Republican operative about beefing up communications at the campaign committee. The meeting was first reported by the Post.
Republican strategists said it was vital for Trump to focus on advancing a legislative agenda to show voters that the administration could deliver policy changes and allay lawmakers' simmering fears that the president's troubles could damage their re-election chances.