The probe into Russia's role in the US election pierced the innermost circle of the White House Saturday, with reports that Donald Trump's son-in-law sought a secret communications line with Moscow — the most damning allegation yet from the scandal.
The latest furor was stirred up after the Washington Post reported late Friday that Jared Kushner — arguably Trump's closest White House aide, and husband to the president's eldest daughter Ivanka — allegedly made a pre-inauguration proposal to the Russian ambassador to set up a secret, bug-proof communications line with the Kremlin.
Kushner, 36, went so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States to protect such a channel from being monitored, The Post said, quoting US officials briefed on intelligence reports.
The revelation, if confirmed, would raise new questions about the Trump team's relationship with the Russians, who US intelligence agencies say tried to sway the November election in Trump's favor and thus deny Hillary Clinton the presidency.
News reports said the White House, reeling from the latest explosive developments in the long-running Russia saga, is creating a new rapid-fire communications unit to respond to the controversy, led by Kushner, senior presidential adviser Steve Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
"This is now sinister. There is no way this can be explained, from the intelligence perspective," said Malcolm Nance, a retired naval officer and expert on terrorism and intelligence, speaking on MSNBC late Friday.
"That is indicative of espionage activity of an American citizen that is working in league with a hostile government," Nance said.
The Washington Post said Kushner's secret communications proposal was made Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower in New York, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by US officials.
Michael Flynn, who was Trump's national security adviser for just 24 days before being fired amid questions about meetings he held with the Russian ambassador, was also at the meeting, the newspaper reported.
The Post said Kushner's Russian interlocutor, ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak, reportedly was surprised by the future White House aide's idea of a secret channel and passed it on to the Kremlin. It did not specify what, if anything, came of Kushner's alleged pitch.
‘Russia at times feeds false info’
The Post story cautioned that “Russia at times feeds false information into communication streams it suspects are monitored as a way of sowing misinformation and confusion among US analysts.”
The White House on Saturday declined to comment on the report.
"We're not going to comment on Jared, we're just not going to comment," said Gary Cohn, Trump's chief economic adviser, during a press conference in Italy as the president's first overseas visit was winding down.
The White House also faces a cascade of other worries related to the Russia probe in the coming week.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has "asked President Trump's political organization to gather and produce all Russia-related documents, emails and phone records going back to his campaign's launch in June 2015," The Post reported.
Fired former FBI Director James Comey has promised to testify at an open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee, sometime after Monday's Memorial Day holiday.
And in another reported development, The New York Times reported on Friday that Oleg Deripaska, a Russian once close to Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, has offered to cooperate with congressional bodies probing alleged Russian election meddling.
Not yet a 'target'
Kushner, like his father-in-law, is a wealthy businessman and heir to a family-run New York real estate empire.
A man of few words who is never far from the president's side, Kushner boasts an enormous portfolio of domestic and international responsibilities, underscoring his importance as Trump's chief aide-de-camp, despite having no experience in the world of politics before the 2016 race.
He is the only person currently in the White House known to be under investigation.
But there have been a number of as yet unexplained contacts — during last year's presidential campaign and afterward — between other top Trump aides and senior Russian officials, including Flynn, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Manafort and others.
The Post reported earlier that investigators are focusing on meetings Kushner held in December with Moscow's ambassador and the head of a Russian bank that has been under US sanctions since 2014. Kushner has offered to talk to Congress about these meetings, according to his lawyer.
The Post and other media have been careful to note that their sources did not say Kushner was a "target" of the investigation, nor that he was accused of any wrongdoing. Labeling him a "target" would suggest Kushner was a main suspect of the investigation.
The investigation is being led by Robert Mueller, a respected former FBI director who was given broad powers to pursue the case as a special counsel after Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9.
The Senate and House Intelligence committees also are investigating, but not with an eye to bringing criminal charges.
Former CIA director John Brennan revealed this week that intelligence chiefs had been looking into suspicious contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials since mid-2016.
Trump has denied any collusion with Russia, calling the probe "the greatest witch hunt" in American political history.
By AFP's Stephanie Griffith in Washington, DC.