White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is overhauling the Trump administration’s security clearance process for staff. The decision comes in the wake of the Rob Porter scandal and amid reports that dozens of White House officials, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, still lack long-term security clearances even as Trump enters his second year in office.
Kelly, who has come under scrutiny for his handling of domestic abuse allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, laid out new rules and procedures for security clearance standards in the Trump administration in a memo first obtained by the Washington Post and later released by the White House.
The memo lands after revelations that Porter was allowed to remain on the job and had an interim security clearance despite knowledge of the allegations of physical and emotional abuse from two ex-wives and a former girlfriend.
“The events of the last ten days have focused immense attention on a clearance process that has been in place for multiple administrations. The American people deserve a White House staff that clearly meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted — especially those who work closely with the president or handle sensitive national security information,” the memo, which is addressed to White House counsel Don McGahn, National Security Adviser HR McMaster, and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joseph Hagin. “We should — and in the future, must — do better.”
Among the proposed changes is that the FBI, which conducts background checks for senior administration hires, hand-deliver checks upon completion and verbally brief the White House counsel on any “significantly derogatory” findings. It also seeks to reduce the “tie lag” between discovery of derogatory information to disclosure to the White House.
It also discontinues interim Top Secret or SCI-level (Sensitive Compartmented Information) clearances that have been pending since before June 2017 and limits access to highly-classified information for individuals with interim clearance.
Kelly’s memo states he is creating a “working group” to “study the clearance process generally” and take action to “streamline, harmonize, and modernize standards” across the executive branch.
The memo is also copied to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
It’s not just Rob Porter whose interim security clearance is questionable
The allegations against Porter and the White House’s botched handling of them have brought to light a broader problem with security within the Trump administration: A lot of people still haven’t been cleared. According to reports from NBC News and CNN this week, about 100 White House administrations lacked long-term security clearances as of November 2017.
Among them: Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, both of whom reportedly have interim clearance for Top Secret and SCI clearance — exactly what Kelly’s memo revokes next week.
Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, Carol Leonnig, and Robert Costa at the Washington Post pointed out that the Kelly clearance overhaul could put a “bull’s eye” on Kushner. The 37-year-old investor and real estate developer in his role as a senior adviser to the president has been able to see some of the United States’ most sensitive secrets — even though his background check is not yet complete.
He has access to the president’s daily brief, a daily digest of intelligence updates, and, according to one person with knowledge of the situation, issues more requests for information to the intelligence community than any White House employee apart from the National Security Council staff.
To be sure, there appear to be plenty of White House officials whose security clearance status remains in question. National Economic Council official George David Banks, who had served since February 2017, resigned this week after being informed he wouldn’t receive a permanent security clearance. He told Politico it was because of past marijuana use.
The Post quotes two US officials who say they don’t think Kushner will receive a permanent security clearance at least in the near future.
Kushner has repeatedly made amendments to forms detailing his contacts with foreign officials and financial assets and has often simply claimed to have forgotten vital information in his dealings with Congress and the ongoing Russia probe. Thus far, it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.