House investigators are demanding that the White House turn over documents related to the security clearances of top officials by Monday, an escalation of a fight between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration that could lead to subpoenas in the coming days.
The move follows the revelation that President Trump interceded to give his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance despite concerns from intelligence and White House officials about Kushner’s contacts with foreign individuals and his failure to disclose them on his clearance application. Both of those factors ordinarily would all but guarantee that an applicant not be given access to government secrets.
Overriding those concerns, the president in May 2018 directed his then-chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to approve the clearance application. Kelly, who had already stripped Kushner of an interim, temporary clearance, documented the president’s intervention in a memo.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), in a letter to the White House on Friday, urged “full and immediate compliance” with requests the panel had made related to security clearances over the past two years. Cummings’s staff in a Friday phone call with White House officials tried to confirm the existence of the Kelly memo and a second written by former White House counsel Donald McGahn. The White House refused three times to confirm or deny the documents’ existence, Oversight Democrats said.
“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.
While Cummings did not use the word “subpoena” in his letter, his recent correspondence with the White House suggests that he is open to one: Cummings told the White House in early February to let the committee know “whether you intend to comply voluntarily or whether the committee should consider alternative means to obtain this information.”
U.S. officials who were charged with investigating Kushner’s suitability to hold a security clearance grew concerned before Trump’s son-in-law arrived at the White House. Law enforcement officials focused on meetings Kushner held in December 2016 with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow, according to people familiar with the matter.
The meetings — with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank — were not initially reported on Kushner’s security clearance forms.
Kushner held an interim clearance for much of the first year he worked in the White House. But his extensive foreign contacts, his complex business arrangements and his failure to disclose all the contacts on his form — which he amended three times — kept him from obtaining a full clearance, according to current and former officials familiar with the process, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive administration deliberations.
Adding to concerns, U.S. intelligence also intercepted conversations of foreign officials discussing how Kushner could be influenced because he was searching for financing to salvage a troubled real estate investment, according to people with knowledge of those intelligence reports. They also remarked that Kushner was naive about foreign policy, which made him pliable, these people said.
In February 2018, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein told McGahn that significant information developed in the course of Kushner’s background investigation would delay his obtaining a permanent clearance, people familiar with the matter said. It’s not clear that Rosenstein mentioned any specific problems.
But current and former U.S. officials said Kushner’s debts were of particular concern at the time, including hundreds of millions he owed on an office building in Manhattan. When determining whether to grant a clearance, officials look for ways that foreign governments might exert leverage on a U.S. official, and financial distress is one red flag.
While he held an interim top-secret clearance, Kushner was able to get access to even more highly classified intelligence, known as sensitive compartmented information. Generally, that information comes from the government’s most sensitive human or technical sources. In Kushner’s case, he was able to read the president’s daily intelligence briefing, sit in on meetings where classified information was discussed and issue orders, or tasking, to intelligence agencies, according to people familiar with the matter.
That all changed in late February 2018, when Kelly changed the rules for holders of interim clearances, stripping Kushner of his access. Then, in May, Trump ordered Kelly to make Kushner’s clearance permanent.
Today, Kushner has a top-secret clearance, but he doesn’t have the more sensitive compartmented clearances, according to U.S. officials.
The White House has argued that the president traditionally has broad authority over his executive staff and clearance matters. It has also sidestepped the House panel’s request to interview employees in the White House Personnel Security Office, which oversees the clearance process.
Cummings’s frustration with the lack of response was clear in his Friday letter.
“Since I sent my letter on January 23, I have been negotiating in good faith — and in private — to try to obtain the information the Committee needs to conduct its investigation,” Cummings wrote. “However, over the past five weeks, the White House has stalled, equivocated, and failed to produce a single document or witness to the Committee.”
Both Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife, have publicly denied that the president was involved in securing a clearance for Kushner. The president told the New York Times in a Jan. 31 interview that he did not direct Kelly or similar officials to grant a clearance, and Ivanka Trump told ABC News last month that her father was not involved in the process.
A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, the lawyer for Kushner and Ivanka Trump, would not discuss the ABC interview or what clearances she holds.
“Whatever the accuracy or not of recent news stories, Mr. Lowell was not aware of nor told of any request for or action by the President to be involved in the security clearance process,” said Peter Mirijanian, the spokesman. “Again, officials affirmed at the time that the regular process occurred without any pressure.”
A person familiar with Ivanka Trump’s account said she maintains that she spoke accurately to ABC.
The White House security clearance process has been a major focus for Oversight Committee Democrats over the past two years. Cummings garnered bipartisan support for his bid to investigate the matter in the wake of reports that Rob Porter, a former White House aide who had been accused of domestic violence, continued to work in a top position while holding only an interim security clearance.
At the time, Republicans controlled the House, and then-Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) joined Cummings in requesting more information about the process. When the White House ignored the requests, however, Gowdy refused Cummings’s pleas to subpoena the information.
Now, with Democrats in charge of the House — and Cummings wielding expansive subpoena authority — the White House won’t be able to ignore Congress’s questions without the potential for an adverse response. Already, there has been an intense back-and-forth between the panel and the White House, as Cummings relaunches his own investigation and increases the pressure on the administration.
In his Jan. 23 letter to Cipollone, the lawmaker asked for a series of documents to be handed over to the panel, including the policy governing how the White House grants security clearances and any recent changes to the policy, particularly those to give classified information to people convicted of crimes or under investigation by law enforcement.
The panel also asked for all communications between Trump’s transition team regarding background investigations, clearance applications and the outcomes for nearly 10 top officials it wanted to home in on. That list included Kushner as well as national security adviser John Bolton; Bolton’s predecessor Michael Flynn; Flynn’s son; and Sebastian Gorka, a former White House official.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that former White House aide Rob Porter was denied a security clearance. He was granted an interim clearance.
Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.