Then-candidate Trump’s race for president was erratic and unfocused, bouncing from controversy to controversy and digging in on new arguments and issues every day. Yet throughout the cacophony, he had one line that always stayed consistent: Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had committed a grave offense in her failure to properly manage classified information at the State Department.
Now that they’re in power, the Trump orbit appears to have a much more lenient approach to information security - particularly when it comes to notions of who can and can’t have security clearances.
NBC News recently reported that as of November 2017, more than 130 political appointees - a quarter of the people working in the Executive Office of the President - lacked permanent security clearances. While this doesn’t mean that all of these people can’t obtain permanent security clearances because of problematic backgrounds, it does present problems for the flow of information in the White House. And with so many people on temporary clearances for so long, there are concerns that the high standard of what only those with permanent clearances can access may be eroding.
Two high-profile cases stand out in the administration’s ongoing struggle with this longstanding U.S. government practice. One of them, Jared Kushner, has been in the spotlight since the time of the presidential transition.
In December 2016, Kushner reportedly pushed for a private line of communication between the Trump White House and the Kremlin, supposedly to discuss sensitive matters like the situation in Syria. The fact Kushner was willing to agree to the Russian request that the forum be outside U.S. diplomatic or security channels shows at best a staggering naivete, and at worst a suspect eagerness to circumvent oversight. Kushner, of course, was also a party to the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in which he, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian government attorney to try and secure damaging information on Secretary Clinton during the campaign.
Compounding these demonstrations of poor judgment is the fact that Kushner has had to submit his SF-86 form, which among other things catalogs relations with foreign nationals for purposes of granting a security clearance, four different times. Charles Phalen, the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, previously testified that he had “never seen” the “level of mistakes” in an application like Kushner’s. So the question remains: How is this already woefully unqualified White House advisor addressing all the issues in his portfolio (which range from diplomacy with China to Middle East peace) with an interim clearance he obtained only after repeated attempts and despite demonstrating that he does not deserve it?
The other clearance story that’s been in the news recently is the fiasco surrounding the White House’s employment of Rob Porter, former White House Staff Secretary who resigned on February 7th amidst accusations of domestic assault.
In recent days, the White House has offered up a series of increasingly improbable and confusing timelines for their learning about Porter’s assault allegations. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a man who once claimed that women are “sacred,” in particular initially appeared to be vehemently standing by Porter. However, FBI Director Chris Wray’s testimony before the Senate this week clarified that the bureau had given a complete report on Porter’s abuse to the White House in July of last year.
There is an obvious rot in a White House committed to protecting someone like Porter - one that starts at the top, given that President Trump is accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. We cannot forget, after all, that the man who is now president was recorded on tape bragging about his ability to do just that. Setting aside unrepentant immorality for a moment, however, the fact remains that if the FBI denied Porter a permanent clearance in July, there is no reason why he should have been allowed to persist in a position where he would be responsible for moving critical and classified information to and around the president.
The Trump Administration’s arrogance in the face of the law is an established fact at this point, but we as citizens must not become desensitized to the ways in which it is actively making us less safe. The security clearance process matters, and there must be consequences for these efforts to cut corners or actively circumvent rules. In the meantime, Porter, Kushner, and so many others demonstrate just one more way this administration is failing to take its responsibilities to the country seriously.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.