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 allies say A$AP Rocky was supposed to thank him but his team stopped 'returning our text messages': report President tweets 'few work harder' than Ivanka, Jared PETA billboard in Baltimore calls Kushner a 'rich pest' MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future 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 CummingsGOP Oversight report says Interior head met with group tied to former clients Nadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Nikki Haley voices 'complete support' for Pence 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 TrumpThe White House and schools have this in common: Asbestos President tweets 'few work harder' than Ivanka, Jared Dick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report MORE, national security adviser John Bolton and former deputy assistant to the president Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaCustoms and Border Protection press secretary exits after two months at job Playboy correspondent sues White House over suspended credentials Playboy White House correspondent says he'll sue over suspended credentials 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 JordanTrump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Democratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal DOJ releases notes from official Bruce Ohr's Russia probe interviews 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 takes aim at media after 'hereby' ordering US businesses out of China Trump knocks news of CNN hiring ex-FBI official McCabe Taylor Swift says Trump is 'gaslighting the American public' 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 ReidNo, it is not racist to question birthright citizenship McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' 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.