WASHINGTON ― The presidential son-in-law charged with crafting a Middle East peace plan now cannot even legally read U.S. intelligence reports about the region.
Last week chief of staff John Kelly’s directed top-level security clearances to be canceled for those unable to pass a necessary FBI background check, and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is among those affected.
The White House did not respond to HuffPost queries about how Kushner would be able to continue in his task without the “top secret, sensitive compartmented information” clearance he had been given on an interim basis at the start of Trump’s presidency 13 months ago.
“Mr. Kushner has done more than what is expected of him in this process,” a Kushner spokesperson said in a statement. “Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for these clearance reviews to take this long in a new administration, and that the current backlogs are now being addressed. No concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application. As General Kelly himself said, the new clearance policy will not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president.”
Others familiar with security clearances and secret materials, though, said the downgrade dramatically hurts Kushner’s ability to do his assigned job.
“This is not a role one could do effectively without access to top secret information,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a spokesman for the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
Bradley Moss, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in security clearance applications, said negotiating a peace agreement requires knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. And that requires having access to information coming from agents as well as from listening posts and spy satellites ― so-called signals intelligence.
“That type of work requires access to intelligence about the players involved, any side discussions they’re having ― that’s where signals intelligence comes into play ― and the situation on the ground,” he said. “I don’t see how you do the equivalent work of a Secretary of State with only a ‘secret’ clearance.”
While the “TS/SCI” interim clearance is the highest available, “secret” is only a step above the lowest.
“A lot of the relevant information that would inform the US negotiating position — not just with the Israelis and Palestinians, but other international actors — is very sensitive,” said Colin Kahl, once the national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. “And every other member of the US interagency working with Kushner would also have to worry about divulging classified information. It’s not tenable.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders refused to answer questions about why Kushner’s security clearance had run into problems.
“I’ve been very clear that we don’t discuss security clearances,” she said. “That’s not changing today. It didn’t change yesterday. It’s not going to change tomorrow. Probably not going to change next week.”
That assertion, however, is not true. White House officials discussed the security clearance of former staff secretary Rob Porter in great detail after news accounts revealed his clearance had been held up because his two ex-wives told the FBI he’d physically abused them.
It was in the swirl of that scandal that reports emerged that dozens of White House staff members ― include Kushner ― were still working with interim clearances because of problems with their background investigations.
Kushner’s reportedly was held up because of questions concerning his finances and the interest foreign investors have shown in his family’s business, potentially as a way to influence him toward their own ends. His decision years ago to purchase an expensive office tower in Midtown Manhattan put the family firm deeply in debt.
While these issues were known even during the campaign, Trump nevertheless replicated the small, closely held family business he had run for decades when he moved into the Oval Office. Both his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and Kushner were brought into the White House as top aides.
Early in Trump’s administration, Kushner’s portfolio appeared to include just about everything his father-in-law said he wanted to accomplish, from an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, to solving the opioid epidemic, to negotiating trade deals, to improving the Veterans Affairs system. Kushner was even put in charge of an “Office of American Innovation,” which was seemingly tasked with solving all problems in both the public and private sectors.
A year later, Kushner’s public profile, at least, has diminished. He was a key figure in pushing White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon out last summer, but Kelly’s simultaneous arrival brought a new power structure to the West Wing. Everyone from that point forward reported to Kelly, including Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Previously, a number of staff members had effectively reported to no one but the president, bypassing the erstwhile chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
At a brief joint news conference with the Australian prime minister on Friday, President Trump praised Kushner’s work but said the decision on his security clearance would be Kelly’s alone.
“So that’ll be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot and General Kelly will make that call. I won’t make that call,” Trump said.