Democrats on the House of Representatives’ top investigative committee think they’ve found a major Trump administration scandal — and it’s about security clearances of dozens of high-level administration officials, including the president’s son-in-law.
Citing “grave breaches of national security” and “a series of extremely troubling incidents,” House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) announced in January that he’d investigate the clearance process at the White House.
At least 30 White House officials received their top-secret clearances after career officials recommended rejecting their applications, NBC News reported in January.
“It’s completely abnormal and frankly shocking that they would overrule 30 recommendations from the career security staff in any administration, let alone the short amount of time we’re talking about here,” Daniel Jacobson, a lawyer in the White House’s counsel office under former President Barack Obama, told Vox.
Among those 30 was Trump’s son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. And in his case, President Trump personally intervened to ensure he got a clearance in May 2018, over the objections of his top advisers, per the New York Times. Then-Chief of Staff John Kelly and then-White House counsel Don McGahn both reportedly documented their concerns about Trump’s decision in memos. Trump did the same thing with his daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump, pressuring Kelly and McGahn to grant her a clearance as well, according to a CNN report.
The White House isn’t interested in cooperating with the Oversight Committee on this matter. White House counsel Pat Cipollone denied repeated requests for documents and witnesses from Cummings and his staff, including a final one on Tuesday. It appears the committee already has leaked documents concerning Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s security clearances, per a report from Axios. So even though the White House isn’t cooperating, House Democrats aren’t exactly starting from scratch.
Cummings will likely have to subpoena the White House to get the full scope of documents and witnesses information he wants, though he hasn’t yet said he’ll take that action.
“We will decide that. We will be careful, responsible, and do what the American people have asked us to do, which is to demand accountability,” Cummings told Vox on Tuesday.
Trump’s move to give Kushner a top-secret clearance was perfectly legal, but it doesn’t look good when serious concerns about White House officials handling classified information are overruled. Kushner has been tasked with a wide array of duties in the White House, including coming up with a peace plan for the Middle East and serving as the president’s main intermediary with Saudi Arabia’s government. Democrats want to know what exactly in Kushner’s background check caused so much concern among career officials that they recommended against giving him a top-secret clearance.
As chair of the Oversight Committee, Cummings has broad authority to investigate practically anything he wants. The simple fact that he is starting by scouring the White House’s security clearance process tells us he thinks there’s more to learn here.
Why do security clearances matter so much?
Security clearances are a necessary part of life in the White House and federal agencies; they are how the US intelligence community verifies whether a federal worker or contractor is trustworthy enough to be able to handle classified national security information. Investigators are looking for anything in an employee’s past that could leave them vulnerable to influence from foreign countries or money lenders — basically, trying to gauge how likely a person is to leak state secrets.
And anyone who is a federal employee needs to go through one, from lower-level federal workers all the way up to the highest officials in the White House.
As Vox’s Lindsay Maizland wrote in a detailed explainer, “There are three levels of security clearances corresponding to sensitivity of information the individual needs to access for their job: confidential, secret, and top secret. Most White House jobs require top-secret clearance.”
Even though not every employee needs the highest security clearance, most go through the exact same process to get cleared. They first have to fill out a detailed 127-page form called the SF-86, which, among other things, asks about past contacts with foreign nationals, past drug use, and financial questions. The idea behind these is to identify any potential leverage points an outside party might have over someone who’s granted access to classified information.
After the form is filled out, an investigative agency scrutinizes everything on the form to see if it’s accurate — and for senior White House and Cabinet-level officials, that agency is typically the FBI.
Importantly, the FBI isn’t the entity that gets to decide which officials get clearances; the final decision is traditionally left up to career officials in the White House. These are often holdovers from other administrations, so, in theory, not swayed by political influence.
But that is reportedly not the case in the Trump White House.
There is serious drama in the White House over security clearances
Security clearance woes have dogged President Trump’s administration for some time. At first, many newly appointed officials did their work with a “temporary” or “interim” clearance, which isn’t unusual. But all the way back in July 2017, CNN reported that “concerns” over whether Kushner would get a permanent clearance had “begun to creep into the West Wing.”
Then in February 2018, a scandal broke involving Rob Porter, who was then White House staff secretary. After news reports revealed that his two ex-wives had accused him of domestic abuse, the press reported that Porter, too, had lacked a permanent security clearance throughout his year handling classified material. This drew attention to the White House’s clearance practices more broadly, and specifically to Kushner’s lack of a permanent clearance.
Behind the scenes, there has reportedly been drama in the personnel security division of the Executive Office of the President, which handles security clearances.
According to NBC News’s Laura Strickler, Ken Dilanian, and Peter Alexander, that office’s director, Carl Kline, repeatedly “overruled career security experts and approved a top-secret clearance for incoming Trump officials despite unfavorable information” — including for Kushner.
Little is known about Kline or how he came to work for the Trump White House; he’s a former Pentagon employee who was “installed” in his current post in May 2017, NBC reported.
A whistleblower has spoken out
Some information about the internal drama has come to light because one of Kline’s subordinates — a White House security specialist named Tricia Newbold — filed a whistleblower complaint about his behavior.
Newbold was one of two specialists who made the determination not to give Kushner top-secret security clearance, according to NBC News. And she alleged in her complaint that Kline then intervened, deviating from the normal process for vetting officials.
She alleged that Kline’s refusal to discuss the matter quickly escalated to workplace discrimination. Newbold has a rare form of dwarfism, and she accused Kline of putting files out of her reach and telling her she could only retrieve them if other staff assisted her, according to a 2018 complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“There was nothing I could do to reach anything, other than have someone do it for me,” Newbold told the Maine newspaper the Bangor Daily News in an interview last month (she is originally from Maine).
After she filed the discrimination complaint, Newbold was suspended temporarily from the White House without pay. She returned to work on February 14, according to the newspaper.
“This past year and a half with the current supervisor [Kline] is the first time I’ve ever felt discriminated against, ever,” Newbold said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a situation where I cannot do my job, which is really an adjustment.”
For Kushner’s clearance, the New York Times reported that Kline in fact acted to carry out a “directive sent down by” President Trump himself, through John Kelly (and over both Kelly’s and McGahn’s objections). Trump followed the same pattern when it came to Ivanka Trump, CNN reported Wednesday. After Kelly and McGahn objected, Trump overrode his former chief of staff and White House counsel and issued the clearances himself.
The full story regarding the other clearances in which Kline overruled career officials’ recommendations isn’t yet known. And we don’t yet know why officials recommended against granting Kushner or Ivanka Trump a clearance, either.
Democrats want to find out more
It’s worth stressing that being president gives Trump the legal authority to do what he wants when it comes to security clearances. Each White House gets to decide how it wants to approach the process.
But while Trump isn’t breaking the law by giving Kushner or anyone else a clearance, members of Congress are concerned he is abusing his executive power for nepotistic or corrupt reasons.
“Look, the president has the right to do a lot of things, but he can abuse his power in doing that,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) told ABC News recently. “Members of Congress have the right to vote for or against the bill. But if they do so because someone paid them $50,000 to do so, that’s an abuse of power.”
So far, the White House has refused to turn over documents Oversight Democrats are requesting as part of their investigation; Cummings issued a blistering statement to Cipollone, the White House counsel, on Tuesday for refusing to comply with his request.
“The White House appears to be arguing that Congress has no authority to examine decisions by the Executive Branch that impact our national security — even when the President’s former National Security Advisor has pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with foreign government officials,” Cummings said. “The White House security clearance system is broken, and it needs both congressional oversight and legislative reform. I will be consulting with Members of the Committee to determine our next steps.”
If he doesn’t hear back, Cummings has the option to issue a subpoena. Then he won’t be asking.