The White House just announced a real howler, a thigh-slapper so laughably stupid that it must have everybody in the national-security community rolling in the aisle. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a news briefing Monday that Trump wants to remove the security clearances of several former officials who have been critical of his rhetoric and actions toward Russia. These people with security clearances, said Sanders, are “making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia.” She wasn’t chuckling when she said it either.
Yes, this plan to revoke security clearances comes from someone who, if he weren’t president, likely couldn’t get a security clearance if he tried.
People in government are only granted clearances after it is determined that the individual’s personal and professional histories make it safe to do so. The criteria for making such a judgment, according to the State Department, include determining the individual’s “loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion, and a willingness and ability to abide by regulations governing the use, handling, and protection of classified information.” The most crucial step in deciding whether to grant access to classified information is a background investigation consisting of a thorough examination of the person’s past and current histories.
I know something about that having served with the U.S. Civil Service Commission (the precursor to the Office of Personnel Management) as an investigator and with the State Department as a special agent domestically and regional security officer overseas. I conducted hundreds of background investigations. There’s so much about Trump that would raise security concerns if he were an off-the-street federal job applicant. (I first addressed Trump’s security clearance issues in a February 2017 column.) People with associations with foreign interests, especially large business, financial or property interests in foreign countries or with foreign-owned businesses, would get close scrutiny. That’s particularly true if those associations might subject them to a risk of foreign influence or exploitation. Enter Trump and the Trump Organization’s business relationships in countries known to target U.S. citizens to try to gain access to protected or privileged information — e.g., Russia.
Furthermore, as I wrote last February, “A background investigation that uncovers questionable judgment, lack of candor or dishonesty draws heightened attention. So, too, the refusal to provide full, frank and truthful answers to lawful questions.” Trump’s well-documented trouble with the truth would likely keep a security clearance out of reach. What about engaging in deceptive financial practices, a history of failing to meet financial obligations and failure to identify all sources of income? Trump’s business bankruptcies, his blackballing by American banks because of his financial dealings and his unwillingness to provide his tax returns might also be grounds for unfavorable clearance action. Personal misconduct or involvement in behavior that cast doubt on judgment and character — say, paying hush money to cover up affairs or being the subject of more than a dozen sexual harassment or assault allegations — would also elevate security concerns. Trump has already demonstrated cavalier treatment of classified information. such as the time he “revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting …, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”
That Trump, with his disqualifying record, would even consider going after someone’s security clearance is a hoot — if it weren’t so outrageous.