Jared Kushner should be very nervous. Rather than take heat for protecting his son-in-law, President Donald Trump left the disposition of Kushner's security clearance up to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. On Tuesday, Kelly dealt Kushner a humiliating setback. The Post reports:
"Jared Kushner, senior adviser and son-in-law to President Trump, had his security clearance downgraded Friday, sharply limiting his access to some of the nation's most sensitive secrets amid concerns raised by the ongoing investigation of his background, two White House officials said Tuesday.
"Kushner was one of several White House officials who received a memo Friday announcing that because of their interim security clearances, their status was being downgraded from the 'Top Secret/SCI' level to the 'Secret' level, a far lower level of access to classified information."
It was never clear why Kushner reportedly requested more access to intelligence materials than any other White House official outside the National Security Council, but whatever the reason, the power that comes with access to information has now been sharply curtailed. ("Friday's downgrade represents a significant loss of access for Kushner, who routinely attended classified briefings, received access to the President's Daily Brief intelligence report and issue[d] requests for information to the intelligence community.") The move also raises questions as to why Kushner wasn't granted a permanent clearance (Was it Russia? His ongoing financial woes? Omissions on his request for a top-secret clearance?). Moreover, it is important to establish the level of risk he posed while he operated on an interim clearance for more than a year.
"The fact that a compromised individual who is a huge potential blackmail target had consistent access to our nation's most closely held secrets for more than a year is just unconscionable," Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now at the Center for American Progress, tells me. "If this was any other administration, Kushner would have been out long ago. Anyone else would not be allowed back in the White House."
Perhaps not coincidentally, news surfaced on Tuesday hinting at just how great a liability Kushner may be for the president. The Post reports:
"Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.
"Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said."
This should come as no surprise given Kushner's retention of his business holdings (Trump didn't bother divesting himself, so why should he force Kushner to do so?) and his mounting financial woes. (This comes on top of previous news that Kushner met during the transition with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank.) "China, the UAE, Russia and reportedly Qatar and Turkey all present issues of split loyalties, indebtedness and simply too much contact with bad actors for someone who sees Top Secret [information] everyday," says former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi. "Why is he still there when you and I would have totally been denied all access to both Secret and Top Secret?" He adds, "It remains to be seen how long he can maintain an Interim Secret level clearance and we are on new ground here with the length of an interim even at Secret level when such substantive issues still exist."
It is becoming increasingly clear that one or more White House officials have the long knives out for Kushner. According to The Post:
"H.R. McMaster, President Trump's national security adviser, learned that Kushner had contacts with foreign officials that he did not coordinate through the National Security Council or officially report. The issue of foreign officials talking about their meetings with Kushner and their perceptions of his vulnerabilities was a subject raised in McMaster's daily intelligence briefings, according to the current and former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
"Within the White House, Kushner's lack of government experience and his business debt were seen from the beginning of his tenure as potential points of leverage that foreign governments could use to influence him, the current and former officials said."
There are several takeaways from the latest revelations.
First, the reason Kushner was denied a clearance is critical and goes to whether he should be in the White House at all. Three Democratic congressmen — Rep. Jerrold Nadler, N.Y., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Reps. Ted Lieu, Calif., and Jamie Raskin, Md., put out a written statement:
"It's about time that the security needs of our country were put ahead of the nepotism of President Trump and his willingness to have unqualified individuals in the White House. The fact that, for over a year, unqualified individuals around the President were permitted high levels of classified information access is astonishing, and we will continue to press the Administration for answers to these and other national security questions. While downgrading Jared Kushner's security clearance is a good first step, it does not go far enough. Mr. Kushner should not have any type of clearance so long as his application remains under review for security concerns."
Second, it is stunning that Kushner has been in the White House for so long. If not for the Rob Porter scandal, attention might never have focused on Kushner — or on Kelly's negligence in allowing him access to the president's daily intelligence briefing for so long.
Norm Eisen, counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed suit seeking to challenge Kushner's security clearance, remarks, "It is shocking that this was not done long ago, as is highlighted by the allegations that multiple countries attempted to exploit Kushner's financial desperation, ego and naïveté." He argues, "Now his days on the job should be numbered. Kushner may assert that he can do his job with a downgraded security clearance but, having worked in the White House and in diplomacy, I think that is false. He will be hampered in his work. He will have to get up and leave some meetings where highly classified documents or information need to be discussed, or cannot even attend them in the first place."
Third, Trump's decision not to intercede on Kushner's behalf should set off alarm bells in the Kushner household. If Trump is not inclined to go out on a limb to protect Kushner's security clearance, would he risk a firestorm by, for example, pardoning Kushner if he is ever indicted? It seems more likely that Trump, if push comes to shove, will protect himself and claim ignorance (truthfully or not) of Kushner's business conflicts and any inappropriate contacts with Russians. One might conclude that from Trump's perspective, Kushner is expendable.
Finally, once more we see the downside of Trump's failure to abide by norms that have guided presidents of both parties (e.g., don't hire unqualified relatives for top posts). We also see the consequences of Republicans' refusal to take their oversight responsibilities seriously with regard to massive conflicts of interest for the entire Trump clan. In the end, Republicans' indulgence of Trump and his family may prove to be the president's undoing. Had Trump at the outset been forced to separate himself from his financial holdings and require Kushner to do the same, Trump might have avoided what we now have - the appearance of a corrupt family more akin to a Third World autocracy than a democratic government.
We don't know whether Kushner traded influence for financial gain. We don't know whether he had any role during the campaign in soliciting help from or working in concert with Russians to sway the election, although he did attend — along with Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. - the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer. We do know that he has turned into a liability for his father-in-law. He shouldn't count on any help from one of the least altruistic men ever to occupy the Oval Office.