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Story highlights

Jared Kushner is under new scrutiny after allegedly seeking a back-channel between the US and Russia

Julian Zelizer: Back-channels, both successful and harmful, have precedent under the Nixon administration

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

This weekend the Washington Post reported that in December Jared Kushner, now presidential adviser (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law), and former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the possibility of creating a secret back channel between the countries.

The two — who would become key figures in Trump’s administration — did not initially acknowledge the conversations. Kushner was a private citizen at the time, not a US government official.

Raising more questions about the nature of the communication, Kushner allegedly suggested that the conversations take place at Russian diplomatic facilities to remain outside the reach of US intelligence agencies, according to the Post report, which cited US officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Trump officials will respond that there is nothing untoward about what happened. They will argue that Kushner was attempting to create a secret back channel with an adversary to ease relations and to conduct constructive negotiations. The primary comparison they could well make is to Richard Nixon, who after the election of 1968 authorized advisers to create a secret back channel to the Soviet Union before his inauguration in January 1969.

To do so, President-elect Nixon relied on his friend Robert Ellsworth and also Henry Kissinger to form contacts with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and KGB intelligence officers. Nixon even said in his inaugural address that “our lines of communication will be open” to signal how serious he, an ardent Cold Warrior, was about pursuing a new path.

The reason that this comparison would be so attractive for Trump’s administration to use is that the Nixon back channel produced huge results. At a moment of great tensions between the two nuclear-armed super powers, Kissinger, who would become Nixon’s national security adviser, would use this secret channel after Nixon officially became President to conduct conversations that culminated in the historic SALT I nuclear arms agreement, a landmark moment in the policy of détente and the eventual end of the Cold War.

But there is another, less favorable Nixon comparison to what Kushner allegedly did. That is the Chennault Affair. In the middle of the presidential campaign against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Anna Chennault, a Republican fundraiser, spoke with the South Vietnamese ambassador. In one conversation, Chennault suggested that the South Vietnamese should abandon the talks taking place with the Johnson administration so that they could obtain a better deal under Richard Nixon, should he be elected.

Nixon was concerned that Johnson was on the cusp of a major breakthrough in the Paris peace talks that would bring an end to the war. The talks broke down. In his new biography of Nixon, John Farrell writes about a memo from Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman saying: “Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam. “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do?”

When President Johnson learned about the conversations, he was furious. He told Sen. Richard Russell, a senior Democrat from Georgia and mentor to LBJ, that “We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources.” When he later confirmed the story through surveillance, LBJ told Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen that, “This is treason.” Dirksen responded: “I know.”

Jared Kushner’s interest in creating a back channel is not the problem. But the context is what makes the revelation so suspicious.

If it is true that Kushner considered setting up a back channel, it would have come after Russia intervened to help the winner in the election, as multiple intelligence agencies have affirmed it did. The back channel discussion would have taken form under a president-elect whose economic interests remain a mystery, including those in Russia.

It is difficult to separate the idea that Kushner was mulling such under-the-radar communication from a larger context in which numerous officials – in the Trump campaign, the transition team and administration – hid their contacts with Russians. Add all that up and the Trump White House has very little credibility to defend itself by saying there is nothing worthy of concern.

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It may well be that the comparison to Nixon’s successful Salt I back channel is apt. But if it turns out that Kushner’s attempts are more akin to the Chennault affair, the news could be devastating to this administration.

The question now on the table for the special counsel, the FBI, and the congressional committees investigating Russia-gate is whether this was a genuine diplomatic initiative or something else: were there ongoing, secret conversations between the Russians, Jared Kushner and other Trump advisors, where the prospects of back channel communication and perhaps promises to ease economic sanctions, were proffered as some kind of payback for the Russians having helped Donald Trump win the election? Or perhaps in exchange for something else?

The truth is that we don’t know right now and that is why the investigations must continue, unobstructed by the President. At the same time, we need to remain aware that the Russians could be leaking false information, as they did in the campaign to such devastating effect, with the hope of creating chaos in American politics.