Downgraded clearance complicates Kushner's work in White House

Downgraded clearance complicates Kushner's work in White House
© Getty

The security clearance for President TrumpDonald John TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' MORE’s son-in-law and top aide Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerFox's Chris Wallace challenges Nadler on whether no more indictments means no 'criminal collusion' Five things we know about Dems' sprawling Trump probe Mueller's end shifts focus to New York prosecutors MORE has been dramatically reduced, a development that experts say is certain to hamper his ability to engage with his expansive portfolio of foreign policy duties.

The State Department insists that Kushner will continue his work on the Middle East peace process despite the downgrade in his clearance. 

“I can tell you that the State Department works very closely with Mr. Kushner and others at the White House to advance one of the president's top priorities, and that is Middle East peace,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“That's a top priority for us and we expect Mr. Kushner to continue his work on that. It's something very important to the president.” 

But former White House and State Department officials say it is highly likely that much of the materials relevant to Kushner’s duties are classified at the top secret or compartmentalized level, especially with respect to Middle East peace matters, and are now above his clearance. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“That role in particular is going to be almost impossible for him to do without access to highly classified information,” said Lisa Brown, a White House staff secretary to former President Obama, who regularly reviewed and vetted classified materials in her role. 

Kushner’s temporary top secret/SCI designation once gave him access to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets. He is now reduced to a secret temporary clearance — a lower level of access — and there are questions about whether the Russia investigation and his extensive business dealings will prevent him from ever receiving a permanent clearance. 

President Trump could have intervened to preserve Kushner’s top-secret access but instead deferred to chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, who was under pressure to scale back access for those who are still undergoing a background review. 

Kushner was not alone — dozens of White House officials have since had their security clearances reduced. But he was the most visible senior official to have his access restricted.

In a statement, Kelly praised Kushner and said he would “continue performing his duties.” 

How that will work in practice remains to be seen.

Kushner has presided over a growing portfolio of responsibilities since his family entered the White House, including foreign policy issues related to the Middle East, China and Mexico. 

Former officials say Kushner’s downgrade blocks him from reading information collected through intelligence operations that would be used to negotiate with foreign officials.

“There’s no reason you need top-secret clearance to meet with a foreign government official,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official under Obama, “and you can still read U.S. negotiations positions and background information.”

“[But] you clearly are going to have a negotiator who has basically got one hand tied behind his back going into these negotiations,” Harrell added, though he stopped short of saying Trump needed to remove Kushner from leading the Mideast peace process.

Some question whether Kushner should continue to lead on matters where he does not have full access. 

“He will be less informed than his peers and, in all likelihood, than his foreign counterparts,” said Austin Evers, who served as senior counsel at the State Department during the Obama administration. “It would be irresponsible for the president to task Kushner to lead on matters where he does not have full access.”

The loss of his top-secret clearance is not expected to impact Kushner’s work in the White House on domestic issues, which include a burgeoning push to modernize the federal government’s technology infrastructure. Kushner leads the White House’s “American innovation” office, which is focused on outreach to the private sector. 

Kushner could be forced to put more of his focus on domestic issues, given that he will be prevented from reviewing high-classified documents and attending meetings on national security issues.

Those reporting to him on Middle East issues will also need to limit the material they put in writing for him, and be sure to exclude information at the top-secret level when speaking to him.

“You’re sort of handicapping the whole enterprise,” said one former official.

Larry Wilkerson, who served as former secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, argued that the clearance reduction is not likely to set Kushner back because the Trump administration’s Mideast strategy is an open secret.

“This administration has no classified Middle East policy … the policy is fully out in the open: all-out support for Israel, crush the Palestinians until they relent, and go from there,” Wilkerson said. “What's classified about that?” 

But Greg Thielmann, a former top U.S. intelligence official at the State Department, said the consequences of Kushner and his staff being kept in the dark on top-secret intelligence could open the door to foreign diplomats taking advantage of their blind spots. 

Thielmann noted the growing scrutiny Kushner’s business dealings have attracted from the media and federal investigators. The Washington Post reported this week that several countries were looking to use Kushner’s extensive business ties to “manipulate” him, while other reports have alleged that Kushner may have used his influence to secure loans. 

“All this leads me to conclude that the kind of problems, which have kept Kushner from keeping his TS/SCI clearance, should have resulted in the pulling of his secret clearance as well,” Thielmann said.

“If he is subject to blackmail or otherwise unreliable, his access to any classified information puts sources and methods in jeopardy. The only difference is in the degree of damage.”