Diplomatic back channels like the one President Trump's son-in-law set up with the Russian government are "an appropriate part of diplomacy," the White House said Tuesday as it sought to douse a growing controversy over the Trump team's contacts with the rival power.
But experts say the secret talks Jared Kushner sought with Russia would be different from back channels typically used by U.S. governments in the course of international relations.
For one thing, Kushner held no formal position in the government at the time he first approached Russian officials at Trump Tower last December, before Trump was sworn in. And the discussions were apparently set up to operate without the knowledge of the U.S. government.
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The existence of a secret back channel could raise a number of legal issues. The Logan Act, for example, prohibits citizens from conducting unauthorized diplomacy. There's also the Espionage Act, which prohibits the disclosure of classified information, and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which prohibits anyone from acting as a secret agent of a foreign power.
Whether the talks were illegal could depend on what Kushner aimed to accomplish in talks with Sergey Gorkov, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank, a Russian bank subject to sanctions imposed by President Obama. Details of those meetings — which have become the latest focus of a sprawling FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — were reported last week by the Washington Post and The New York Times.