Isikoff's scoop provides the key: “Syria” is the cover story for sanctions relief and Russian gifts


When Trump associates get caught talking to the Russians, the excuse du jour is that they were talking about “Syria” and military cooperation in Syria.  Remember the non-denial-denial excuse floated for Kushner’s attempts to hide his Russian talks on Russian secure lines?

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and now top White House adviser Jared Kushner proposed setting up a secret back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump transition team during a December meeting with a leading Russian diplomat.

The Associated Press has learned that Kushner spoke with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. — Sergey Kislyak — about creating the secret line to make it easier to hold sensitive discussions about the conflict in Syria.

A person familiar with the discussions says the back channel was meant to connect Michael Flynn — who later became Trump's first former national security adviser — with Russian military leaders.

But as many pointed out, the Syria excuse — involving an open conflict with critical military assets on the ground and in close conflict with each other — is hard to make sense of as an excuse for secret Russian communications.  Why would anyone want to exclude the military, the State Dept., and the U.S. government in general from talks with Russians about an ongoing, open conflict — and with uncertainty how far and reliable those communications went up the chain in Moscow?

Michael Isikoff’s recent reporting that the Trump administration was immediately and secretly moving to lift Russian sanctions and provide other gifts contains the answer: 

Just days after President Trump took office, officials who had moved into the secretary of state’s seventh-floor office sent a “tasking” order to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs to develop a menu of options to improve relations with Russia as part of a deal in exchange for Russian cooperation in the war against the Islamic State in Syria, according to two former officials. Those options were to include sanctions relief as well as other steps that were a high priority for Moscow, including the return of two diplomatic compounds — one on Long Island and the other on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — that were shut by President Obama on Dec. 29 on the grounds that they were being used for espionage purposes. (The return of the compounds is again being actively considered by the administration, according to a Washington Post report Thursday.)

Do you see?  Right from the inception, the stated justification, the cover story, for talks and actions to lift the Russian sanctions was going to be some unstated, vague request for coordination with or help from Russia on Syria.  As a result, when a Trump associate is asked “why were you secretly talking to X Russian official,” he or she could say “we were talking about Syria.”  

Going back, and going forward, notice how many times Trump officials explain these Russian contacts as part of a “Syrian” strategy.  Then realize what they are actually admitting — they were talking to Russian officials about sanctions relief, about returning the two diplomatic compounds and about whatever else Russia was demanding.