It is hard to tell what should be more worrisome: the fact that the commander in chief doesn’t bother to read his daily compilation of the nation’s most urgent intelligence, or the fact that his son-in-law — who has been unable to obtain a security clearance — does.
Those two stories were three pages apart in Saturday’s print edition of The Post.
On the front page, my colleagues Carol D. Leonnig, Shane Harris and Greg Jaffe reported that Donald Trump is the first president since Richard M. Nixon not to regularly review the document known as the President’s Daily Brief, the distillation of information picked up around the world by U.S. intelligence agencies.
And there on Page A4 was the other one, under the bylines of Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett.
Jared Kushner’s inability to get a permanent security clearance, for reasons that are not entirely clear, has become a source of vexation at the White House. But in the meantime, he has a temporary status that allows him to “see materials, including the President’s Daily Brief, that are among the most sensitive in government,” they wrote.
There are two sets of issues to be concerned about here. The more serious one, of course, is whether the president is getting the information he needs to keep the country safe — or alternatively, whether his handlers may be dumbing things down to avoid overtaxing his attention span or challenging his preconceptions.
In the case of Kushner, there is a potential security risk but also the more immediate question of how appropriate is it for him to have access to the material under any circumstances. That takes us back to the fact that the 37-year-old real estate scion has no credential to merit holding his current White House job, outside of whom he married.
It is hard to miss the irony of it all: Wasn’t the main driver of the scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails the fact that it suggested she was careless in handling the nation’s secrets?
The President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, was the document that on Aug. 6, 2001, contained a heading warning: “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.” It even suggested that he might hijack airlines to do it.
When such an attack happened a month later, that memo became Exhibit A in the case for those who argued that the George W. Bush administration was asleep to the danger.
Of course, every president has his own style of processing information. But even Ronald Reagan, whose inattentiveness so often exasperated his closest advisers, made a point of reading the PDB every day.
White House officials say that Trump’s decision to receive a shortened briefing orally reflects his “style of learning,” as well as his impatience with dense material. His intelligence advisers augment their presentation with charts, pictures, videos and what CIA Director Mike Pompeo calls “killer graphics.”
But it seems fair to wonder how closely the easily distractable chief executive is following the oral presentations. The time on his official schedule set aside for the briefings has sometimes coincided closely with his tweets, including ones about random things he seems to have heard on “Fox & Friends.”
A separate issue is whether his oral briefings are full reflections of what the PDBs actually say. Last year, for instance, The Post reported that intelligence officials include Russia-related material only in the written version and avoid referring to it in their oral presentations, in apparent fear that it will set off another presidential eruption about witch hunts by sore-loser Democrats.
While it is typical for a close circle of presidential aides to also have access to the PDB, it is far less so for someone like Kushner, a newcomer to government who has only a temporary status on his clearance — and who, it should be noted, is also a focus in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.
Kushner’s lawyer Abbe Lowell insisted in a statement that Kushner’s clearance is taking longer than usual “because of the extent of his holdings, travels and lengthy submissions.”
But the process has not been helped by the fact that Kushner has had to repeatedly update his security questionnaire, known as an SF-86, because he neglected to include all contacts he has had with foreigners.
Concern about the casualness with which the Trump White House deals with sensitive material also has been amplified in the past week, with the resignation of White House staff secretary Rob Porter over allegations that he had abused two ex-wives. It turns out that Porter, whose job it was to control the flow of documents to the president, also had only an interim security clearance — and that the FBI had warned top White House officials that there was evidence that he committed a violent crime.
Given Trump’s background — the flamboyant bankruptcies of his businesses, the many lawsuits that he has filed and that have been lodged against him, the credible allegations that he has mistreated women — it is hard to imagine that he would be a slam dunk for a security clearance.
If he weren’t president, that is.
But he is.
And the job comes with homework.