President Trump early last year directed his then-chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to give presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance — a move that made Kelly so uncomfortable that he documented the request in writing, according to current and former administration officials.
After Kushner, a senior White House adviser, and his wife, Ivanka Trump, pressured the president to grant Kushner the long-delayed clearance, Trump instructed Kelly to fix the problem, according to a person familiar with Kelly’s account, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Kushner’s lawyer, Ivanka Trump and President Trump all falsely stated that he got no special treatment.
As Trump defenders have pointed out, the president has the authority to grant clearances to anyone, so why is this even a problem? Attorney Mark S. Zaid, who represents individuals in security clearance matters, tells me, “The question isn’t whether President Trump has the lawful authority to grant his son-in-law a security clearance, as he clearly does, but what are the mechanisms for Congress to conduct legitimate, nonpartisan oversight of presidential actions in the national security arena.” He explains, “It is apparently unprecedented for a President to override security professionals in this manner. ... What is necessary to keep the system afloat is consistency, which this case lacks.”
The House Oversight Committee, which has tried to review the White House clearance procedures (which came to light when staff secretary Rob Porter was accused of spousal abuse), is going to get to the bottom of this. The committee’s chairman says time’s up. “In a letter to the White House, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) urged ‘full and immediate compliance’ with requests that Democrats on the panel have made related to security clearances for much of the past two years,” The Post reports. “’I am now writing a final time to request your voluntary cooperation with this investigation,' Cummings said in the letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone.”
This raises two main questions: Why didn’t the intelligence professionals want to give him a security clearance? Second, how bad is this?
The first question raises the issue as to whether Kushner was compromised and therefore shouldn’t have gotten a clearance. Prior reports revealed officials from four foreign countries believed he could be manipulated because of his financial situation. Congress needs to determine whether this was the root of the problem.
In addition, Kushner revised his application for a clearance multiple times after omitting mention of foreign contacts. CNN previously reported:
Democrats have called on the White House to revoke security clearances granted to Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Ivanka Trump over reports of their use of personal email accounts and Kushner's multiple updates to his security clearance questionnaire, known as SF-86, for failing initially to include meeting with foreign officials.
Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois asked [the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, Charles] Phalen, “Can you recall if there has ever been an applicant having to submit four addenda detailing over 100 errors and omissions being able to maintain their security clearance once those errors and omission have been identified?”
Phalen said he has not seen “the breadth” of all applications “but I have never seen that level of mistakes.”
Congress needs to find out whether these revisions has to do with Kushner’s contacts with Russians and/or with the investigation of those contacts in the special counsel probe.
So how bad is this? Well, that depends in part on why the clearance was denied by professional intelligence personnel and why they all lied about it. (And the constant lying to the voters and the media matters, too; the president and his family apparently will lie about everything and anything.)
The scandal matters for another reason, actually the same reason Trump was so hysterical about Hillary Clinton’s email server. If higher-ups don’t abide by the same rules as everyone, those down the chain lose respect for the rules. The Trump family seems to specialize in eroding norms of conduct essential to the effective operation of a democracy.
In a larger sense, this all goes back to the original sin: hiring an utterly unqualified son-in-law and assigning him an enormous range of critical issues. Nepotism rules are there for a reason. They protect the people from the self-serving and dangerous practice of putting incompetent relatives in government. Kushner shows why incompetent relatives are worse than incompetent non-relatives: It’s really hard to fire relatives.
“This is one more example of this president lying to the public about really important things,” observes former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi. “On a larger level, we see a president who views his intelligence agencies with disdain yet uses access to their intelligence as a tool or weapon by pulling his detractors from access while ensuring his allies get coveted clearances.”
A final question needs to be answered here. Kushner needs to be questioned under oath, and all relevant documents need to be reviewed to determine whether he used information he has clearance for to advance his personal business interests and/or use to trade in exchange for financial favors from foreign governments. Everyone involved, including Kelly, should be dragged behind closed doors and grilled until we get to the bottom of this. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees without compromising intelligence should publicly recommend either he retain the clearance or he relinquish it. This would be advisory only, but it would give voters some sense of comfort that the system isn’t being abused. They sure can’t trust Trump to tell them. To the extent there has been any illegal activity (lying to the public generally isn’t illegal, nor is overriding security professionals) the matter should be referred to the special counsel, if it hasn’t been already.