The Memo: New revelations fuel controversy over security clearances

The Trump administration is being pounded by a new controversy over security clearances amid recent allegations from a White House whistleblower.

The charges will raise fresh concerns about the politicization of the clearance process — a topic that has made headlines before, especially in relation to Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' On The Money: Supreme Court upholds NY prosecutors' access to Trump's tax returns, rebuffs Congress | Trump complains of 'political prosecution' | Biden rebukes Trump, rolls out jobs plan Supreme Court upholds NY prosecutors' access to Trump's tax returns, rebuffs Congress MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

The most recent allegations, which became public on Monday, suggest a wider problem. The whistleblower — Tricia Newbold, who works in the White House’s personnel security office — says she began keeping a list of people who were denied security clearances by career officials, only to have that decision overturned.


Newbold apparently told the House Oversight and Reform Committee in a private interview on March 23 that her list grew to encompass 25 people.

A memo prepared by committee staff and made public by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland MORE (D-Md.), characterizes Newbold as having described how “these individuals had a wide range of serious disqualifying issues involving foreign influence, conflicts of interest, concerning personal conduct, financial problems, drug use, and criminal conduct.”

Democrats are seizing on the controversy.

“ ‘Disconcerting’ doesn’t begin to describe it,” Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky told The Hill.

Roginsky acknowledged that any president has the capacity to decide who gets a security clearance, though asserted that there were more important issues at play in this case.

“The president has the authority, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to provide security clearances to people who the intelligence community believes to be compromised,” she said.

The Oversight and Reform Committee has not publicly released the names of the people on Newbold’s 25-strong list. 

But it is seeking documents pertaining to a number of high-profile figures including Kushner, the president’s elder daughter Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpMelania Trump confidant plans tell-all book Trump says he's 'all for masks' despite reluctance to wear one Trump signs order directing federal government to focus on skills when hiring MORE, national security adviser John Bolton and former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaTrump's new head of US media agency under fire from both sides Appeals court blocks White House from suspending reporter Sunday shows preview: As states loosen social distancing restrictions, lawmakers address dwindling state budgets MORE. It is also seeking documents relating to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI.


The issue of Kushner’s clearances has been a persistent sore spot for the administration. The New York Times reported in February that former White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE had written a contemporaneous internal memo during his tenure in which he said he had been “ordered” to give Kushner a top-secret security clearance. 

The Times reported that the White House counsel at the time, Don McGahn, had also recommended that Kushner not be given that level of clearance, apparently citing concerns raised by the CIA, among others.

The breadth of the allegations in the whistleblower’s testimony will inject new urgency into the issue. 

In a Monday letter to current White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Cummings alleged that there had been “grave breaches of national security at the highest levels of the Trump administration.” Cummings pledged that the committee would begin the process of authorizing subpoenas. The first subpoena, he wrote to Cipollone, would be aimed at compelling testimony from the whistleblower’s onetime boss, Carl Kline.

The potential for political embarrassment for the Trump administration appears considerable.

But Republicans — especially Trump loyalists — are pushing back hard against the Democratic narrative.

Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanNadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (R-Ohio) — one of Trump’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill — released a statement Monday in which he accused Cummings of “using this sensitive topic as a pretense for a partisan attack on the White House.” He also alleged that the memo disseminated by Cummings “mischaracterizes the information” shared by the whistleblower.

Other Republicans tried to tamp down the controversy.

“I don’t think it is going to make much of an impact,” said one GOP strategist with ties to the White House. “We have already been desensitized to all of this because of the Jared and Ivanka issue. Outside the Beltway, nobody cares.”

The strategist did acknowledge, however, that the story was “more cable news fodder.”

Brad Blakeman, who served on the senior staff of President George W. Bush’s White House and is a strong supporter of the current president, insisted that the story was “beating a dead horse.”

“The president has the authority to grant clearances as he sees fit, and these people have been on the job without incident,” Blakeman said. “This is just an attempt to keep the story alive. There isn’t any charge that [Kushner] has abused the clearance. If anybody had abused or violated a clearance, that’s a story.”

But Democrats, who will never forget the furor over 2016 presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to visit Georgia next week Former NY Rep. Claudia Tenney to face Anthony Brindisi in House rematch Powell takes on Trump over Confederate flag MORE’s use of a private server and email account while secretary of State, are struck by Republicans’ insouciance on the clearances issue.

“The irony here is that Trump and his team relentlessly attacked Hillary Clinton for her emails and for ‘bleaching her computer,’ whatever that means,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who served as an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Trump wants executive order on policing; silent on pending bills MORE (D-Nev.). 

“Yet now we are faced once again with something far more serious than emails.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.