The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s response to White House whistleblower: Nothing to see here

In 2018, President Trump ordered chief of staff John Kelly to give his son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance, despite officials' concerns. (Video: Reuters)

We have known for a while that there are very real questions about the White House’s security clearance process. Despite occupying a high-profile job involving diplomacy and Middle East peace, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner was not able to get a much-needed clearance. The whole thing culminated, we found out recently, in President Trump last year demanding that then-chief of staff John F. Kelly get Kushner one. That request reportedly made both Kelly and then-White House counsel Donald McGahn uncomfortable enough to write memos. The situation is amplified by Kushner’s status as Trump’s son-in-law and the fact that both Trump and daughter Ivanka Trump falsely denied any intervention.

Fast-forward to this weekend, when a whistleblower stepped forward to point out major problems with the process.

The GOP’s response to this: downplay, downplay, downplay. But their arguments are non sequiturs and rather odd.

Jared Kushner dismisses concerns raised by White House whistleblower on security clearances

Tricia Newbold is an 18-year veteran of the security clearance process. On Monday, the Democratic-run House Oversight Committee disclosed that she had pointed to 25 instances in which denials of clearances were overturned by the White House. She also said robust explanations were not offered for these decisions and that she was retaliated against when she spoke up.

We obviously have yet to see the evidence, but the Oversight Committee says others have raised similar concerns anonymously. Kelly’s and McGahn’s thoughts would seem warranted. And the backdrop of Kushner can’t help but color all of it.

Happily, Kushner granted a rare interview Monday night in which he could address this. Sadly, he was tossed softballs by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and not really pressed on the core issues. Here’s the exchange:

INGRAHAM: The left is going crazy about the security clearance issue. And a whistleblower from the White House has now given a private interview on Capitol Hill with Democrats, and she says that 25 individuals were able to leapfrog over the career people’s concerns about security clearances, and they received security clearances, in her view, improperly. What’s your reaction for that?
KUSHNER: Well, I can’t comment for the White House’s process, but what I can say is that over the last few years that I’ve been here, I’ve been accused of all different types of things, and all of those things have turned out to be false. We’ve had a lot of crazy accusations, like, that we colluded with Russia. I complied with all the different investigations, whether it be the Senate, the House, the special counsel. I’ve sat for nearly 20 hours of interviews with them. When I came to Washington, I had a very successful business career. I had extensive holdings. I disclosed all of my holdings for the Office of Government Ethics, and what I did with them is they told me what to divest, what to keep, what rules to follow. We followed all that.

Setting aside the “left is going crazy” preface, Kushner makes clear upfront that he can offer no real insight into how the process is run. Then he answers the question as if he is accused of something, which he isn’t really. To the extent this involves him, the question is what happened with his clearance and what he and his wife, Ivanka Trump, might have asked the president to do. He is not asked these questions.

Kushner also says he disclosed all of his holdings, without mentioning that he had to update his filings — often to disclose things he previously failed to — more than 40 times.

They continued:

INGRAHAM: Do you get the sense that the Democrats keep moving the goal post on this? It strikes me as interesting that this comes out today after Mueller fizzles.
KUSHNER: Yes. Well, what I learned during the campaign is that there’s a big difference between what people in America care about and what people in Washington or in the media care about.

Again, the framing here is something. This is an issue Democrats have been talking about since early 2017 — and even Republicans have raised concerns about at times — and yet it’s framed as if the left is inventing an issue after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III declined to accuse President Trump of a crime.

Kushner’s denial is also interesting: The American people don’t care! This is from an administration whose president spent much of the 2016 campaign railing about the security threats posed by Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Whether there is ultimately a scandal here or not, it’s not really disputable that it’s a national security problem to have people with access to classified information that could be compromised. Newbold suggests that’s a real possibility.

The more robust response to Newbold’s allegations, though, come from the House Oversight Committee’s Republicans. The staff of ranking minority-party member Jim Jordan (Ohio) issued a memo Monday suggesting that what Newbold alleged isn’t that bad, that her testimony has been “cherry-picked” by Democrats, and even suggesting she is a disgruntled employee.

Let’s take it piece by piece.

1. Only 4 or 5 of the 25 security clearances had been denied for “very serious reasons.”

To the point above, the GOP staff notes that “Ms. Newbold testified that only 4-5 of her unfavorable 25 adjudications were for ‘very serious reasons.’ ” It also notes that “only three individuals were senior-level employees who worked at the White House.” The memo adds that 5,000 Executive Office of the President employees must be approved for security clearances — again suggesting that either 4 to 5 or even 25 are relatively small numbers.

“If [Newbold’s boss Carl] Kline overturned only — at most — five clearance adjudications with very serious concerns out of five thousand, Ms. Newbold’s concerns seem overblown,” the GOP staff write.

But that still leaves four or five people who had been denied for national security concerns that had been deemed “very serious.” The details of those are obviously important, but even one person who is ultimately compromised can be a major national security risk — especially in a senior White House position, which this also involves.

The GOP staff also notably adds that Newbold pointed to just two situations in which a denial was overturned during the Obama administration. One was an Office of Management and Budget employee who was using cocaine frequently, while another was an employee who was unwilling to renounce their dual citizenship with the United Kingdom.

It’s not clear whether this is an exhaustive list, but it would seem Newbold is saying clearance decisions have been overturned much more frequently and for more serious reasons in the Trump administration, which is really the point.

2. This is ultimately up to Trump.

The memo notes not once, not twice, but three times that Trump maintains the “ultimate” authority over security clearances. This is true, but it’s not at all in dispute. Trump can legally do what he wants. The question is whether that authority — and the authorities of people further down in the process — is being exercised wisely. Newbold suggests they are not. Kelly and McGahn seem to have had concerns, as well.

3. The idea that Newbold is disgruntled.

This isn’t flat-out stated in the GOP memo, but it’s certainly hinted at. One point made is that Newbold has filed “complaints about her work environment at the White House.” But one came in January 2019 — in the thick of all of this — and another was in 2008 “related to maternity leave and a promotion.”

She is also said to have raised “several complaints about Kline, her office, and other White House officials.” Again, though, many of these complaints seem to deal with the same things on which she’s blowing the whistle.

“We must carefully weigh Ms. Newbold’s testimony against the backdrop of her various complaints directed at her supervisors and colleagues,” the GOP staff wrote.

Any whistleblower’s credibility must certainly be judged as part of the process, but it’s interesting that the GOP staff’s initial impulse is to suggest she’s a malcontent.

4. Praising Kelly’s reforms.

The GOP memo seems to suggest Newbold’s praise for reforms in the White House security clearance process was omitted from Democrats’ summary.

“Ms. Newbold spoke favorably about Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s memo, issued in February 2018, that reformed the security clearance process,” it says. “She stated, ‘I do believe that we were getting out of control with the interim clearances, and Mr. Kelly acted accordingly, and that was an improvement.’ ”

The question is whether improvements were still good enough. Just because something is better than it used to be doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And Kelly still had clear qualms, judging by his response to Trump’s request three months after he wrote that memo.

Much has yet to play out here with all this. But it’s completely notable that the GOP’s default response seems to be to suggest security clearances being given to four or five people with “very serious” concerns — not to mention the Kushner situation — is to downplay it. This would seem to be the kind of potential national security threat that they and Trump warned about frequently in 2016.