SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump returns from his first official trip abroad this weekend. He had a few immobilizing and interminable handshakes overseas. He did a sword dance with Saudi princes and signed an arms deal. He assured Israelis that he didn't blurt Israel to the Russian ambassador, and he gave what amounted to a collection agency call to the member states of NATO, all while Washington, D.C., swirled with investigations and intrigues. Molly Ball, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins us in our studios.
Molly, thanks so much for being with us.
MOLLY BALL: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Look, we'll get to the trip. But we have to - the report's breaking, as in fact we just heard in the newscast - initially by The Washington Post - that Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and secretary of most everything else in government, tried or wanted to open a back channel for communications with the Russian government even before the inauguration. What are the implications of this story?
BALL: Well, there are a lot of implications, obviously, of the - the facts that are coming out, the continued drumbeat of revelations about contacts with people in Trump's orbit and the Russians. This has been a story for many months now. But Kushner in particular - we also learned this week that he is the only White House official - current White House official who remains a subject of scrutiny in the investigation.
And he is a relative, so he's someone that the president is unlikely to cut loose the way he has others, such as Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn. So Kushner's ability to stay in the president's orbit is seen as ironclad, and that could pose a continuing problem for the president in political terms. Also, I think this shows that while the foreign trip was seen as something of a reprieve for Trump and maybe even a chance to reset things once he got back home, he's going to be out of the frying pan right back into the fire. The investigations and the pace of revelations is not going to let up.
SIMON: Let me follow up on Russia for a moment. If it's documented there was some kind of attempt to set up a back channel negotiation - back channel line of communication, is that such a bad idea between two nuclear powers?
BALL: Well, apparently, the Russians themselves were taken aback by this. I mean, two nuclear powers who have tense relations and quite a bit of animosity - this was considered an unusual request. The Russians were apparently put off by it and refused it. It is not a standard thing to do. It's one thing to have open talks. And we do have, obviously, a diplomatic relationship with Russia. But to have this secret channel was something that they considered highly irregular. So whether or not it was a good idea, it is something that the then-transition - and then eventually the administration - appears to have gone out of their way to conceal, which I think also tells you a lot.
SIMON: A question about the European trip - the president didn't seem aligned with European allies at NATO about this one-for-all and all-for-one stuff. What are the ramifications of that?
BALL: This is potentially extremely serious, and it is being taken extremely serious by - seriously by our allies in Europe. Just the theatrics of this were really remarkable - the amount of sort of discomfort that you could see on the faces of the president and the European officials; the coldness in the room; and then the speech that Trump gave, where he not only openly publicly lectured the members of the NATO alliance but conspicuously declined to reaffirm the United States' Article 5 commitment, which is the point of the NATO alliance, that assurance of mutual security. And so that causes a lot of jitters in Europe and has a lot of our allies wondering whether they can count on the United States, if they weren't already.
SIMON: And was there a contrast, then, with the relationship - the palpably warm relationship in Saudi Arabia?
BALL: Yeah - well, there was certainly a contrast with the vibe. And I think what a lot of foreign leaders have been learning from the diplomats and people in foreign governments that I speak to - they've been watching Trump and trying to figure him out. And one of the things that they have discerned about him is that he loves to be flattered. So you know, you have the Saudis roll out a literal red carpet for him and give him this giant warm welcome. And he's clearly very receptive to that. He clearly responds to that very well. The reception in Europe was much chillier.
SIMON: Molly Ball of The Atlantic, thanks so much.
BALL: Thank you.
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