President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, had his security clearance downgraded last week from a top-secret level to a secret level — meaning he lost access to classified materials and can no longer view the president’s daily intelligence briefing.
Kushner’s security clearance has come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks, in part because of the Rob Porter scandal but also because Kushner failed to disclose more than 100 foreign contacts on his initial clearance application.
Noah Bookbinder is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit legal watchdog group focused on public accountability. CREW is the organization that filed the complaint with Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, asking him to revoke Kushner’s security clearance until he passes a full background check.
I reached out to Bookbinder and asked him to explain why he thinks Kushner is a security risk and if he thinks Kushner can continue to do his job — including leading the administration’s Middle East peace efforts — now that his clearance has been downgraded.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Lay out the reasons why your group filed a complaint asking that Jared Kushner’s security clearance be revoked.
First of all, it’s a fact that he’s been operating on a temporary security clearance for more than a year, despite the extreme sensitivity of his job — and that raises a number of questions given the level of information to which he has regular access. And his clearance is obviously a priority, so if they’re still looking into him 13 months later, it’s reasonable to assume there’s a problem.
And what were the specific concerns that you and your organization had about Kushner?
There were three issues that we saw. One is that he omitted a lot of significant information from his application for a security clearance, and he ended up having to amend it multiple times to add in foreign contacts that he hadn’t initially reported. We don’t know whether those omissions were intentional or just slip-ups, but it raises questions either about Kushner’s candor or about how much of a grasp he has on all of the conflicting interests and issues he has out there.
Secondly, we know that he’s under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. We don’t know whether he’ll be charged with anything or what he’s being investigated for, but there’s a criminal investigation into very serious issues and it’s been reported that Kushner is one of the people Mueller is looking into, and obviously that’s cause for concern.
Finally, we’ve seen disturbing stories over the past couple of weeks about intelligence reports indicating that foreign governments have been specifically trying to use Kushner’s debt and inexperience to manipulate him to be more favorable to them. That’s a tremendous security risk and it’s exactly the kind of thing the clearance process is meant to find. So there’s no way he should have a full top-secret security clearance until these issues have been addressed.
How unusual is it to have someone at this level, with this kind of access to sensitive information, with all these question marks in his or her background?
It’s extremely unusual. I can’t remember a parallel situation. It’s certainly very unusual this far into an administration. We’ve seen situations like this during the first few months of an administration — that’s normal. But to have this many outstanding issues and somebody at this high a level still not cleared over a year into an administration is unprecedented as far as I can tell.
How concerned are you, and how concerned should the public be, that Kushner has operated for over a year with a temporary clearance despite having all these glaring issues?
I’m very concerned. I think the public should be very concerned. We’ve now seen reports that countries like China and the United Arab Emirates and Israel are attempting to get to Kushner and to use compromising information to leverage him to their advantage. We have no idea if this has already happened.
We’re now learning that his companies are getting loans from financial institutions whose executives he met with at the White House. We can’t say for sure if there was wrongdoing there, but it certainly looks bad. And it suggests that he’s not being careful about who he’s meeting with and how he should separate the various interests he has in order to avoid ethical conflicts.
Have you ever seen an administration handle security clearances like this?
No. I can’t say that there’s never been an issue where people have been on a temporary clearance for a long time, but the strong sense that I get, including from people who have worked in administrations before on clearance issues, is that this is very different from the norm, and to have large numbers of people at very high levels without getting fully cleared for a long period of time is not the way things are supposed to work. I can tell you that people who work on these kinds of issue are very disturbed by what we’re seeing.
Can Kushner continue to do his job now that his clearance has been downgraded?
He’s still in the job and he still has some clearance, although we don’t think he should have any clearance at all until he’s fully cleared by the FBI. But here’s the thing: He still knows all the stuff that he’s seen for the last year.
So I think there are two main areas of vulnerability. One is that we’ve got someone with all these potential problems who has, for more than a year, seen the most sensitive information, and we don’t know if there are any security risks based on that.
The second is that we have a guy who is still supposedly working on all these incredibly important issues, like peace negotiations in the Middle East, who now doesn’t have access to some of the most important intelligence that can help him make the right decisions on those issues.
So you have both a security risk and it seems like he’s compromised in his ability to do his job. I don’t know how it would make any sense to let him continue in his current position at the White House under these circumstances, but, nonetheless, he’s still doing it.