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 puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline GOP launches 'WinRed' online fundraising site in response to Democrats' small-donor advantage MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question 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.

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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 CummingsNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question White House to block Conway from testifying over alleged Hatch Act violations 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 TrumpApple in front lines of Trump trade war African Development Bank is much more than critic suggests Apple seeks to exempt products including iPhone from proposed tariffs MORE, national security adviser John Bolton and former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaWarren, Sanders, Booker urge review of Sinclair .6B acquisition of regional sports networks Katharine Gorka to be named CBP press secretary Gorka slams PBS children's show 'Arthur' over gay wedding 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.

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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 JordanOversight Republicans: 'Hundreds' of migrants in caravans have criminal histories Cummings requests interview with Census official over new allegations on citizenship question House Oversight Republicans release parts of Kobach, Trump officials' testimony on census citizenship question 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 ClintonBiden to debate for first time as front-runner Top Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently 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 ReidSenators briefed on US Navy's encounters with UFOs: report Key endorsements: A who's who in early states Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview 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.