February 28, 2018 10:15:57 AM
WASHINGTON -- The security clearance of White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has been downgraded, significantly reducing his access to classified information, according to two people informed of the decision.
Kushner had been operating with an interim clearance at the "top secret/sensitive compartmented information" level for more than a year. Now he is authorized to access information only at the lower "secret" level, according to a White House official and a person familiar with the decision, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither source was authorized to discuss the decision publicly.
Tuesday's news set off rampant speculation among Trump allies that Kushner's days in the White House might be numbered. On the same day, the departure of a third Kushner ally in the West Wing in as many months was announced. And the selection of a Kushner ally to serve as Trump's 2020 campaign manager appeared to suggest the campaign could provide Kushner with a convenient place to land after his White House duties end.
Kushner lost his access to the nation's deepest secrets after chief of staff John Kelly ordered that White House officials with interim clearances pending since before June 1, 2017, be cut off if they hadn't received permanent clearances by last Friday.
A White House official confirmed to The Associated Press that Kelly's order has been implemented.
President Donald Trump could have reversed Kelly's decision and unilaterally offered Kushner a clearance, but deferred to Kelly. Kushner is one of dozens of White House aides who have been working without permanent security clearances for the better part of a year.
His attorney told the AP that Kushner's ability to do his job won't be affected by any change to his clearance.
"Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at Mr. Kushner's level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for these clearance reviews to take this long in a new administration, and that the current backlogs are now being addressed," said Peter Mirijanian, a Kushner spokesman.
Kushner's portfolio once included the U.S. relationships with China and Japan and a host of domestic priorities, including infrastructure, trade and economic development. But his freewheeling reach in the foreign policy space -- which was viewed as undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- already had been curtailed somewhat under Kelly.
Still, Kushner is reportedly said to have reviewed the highly secret presidential daily brief and has been in the room for some of Trump's most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that she would not comment on individual security clearances but called Kushner "a valued member of the team, and he will continue to do the important work that he's been doing since he started in the administration."
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that officials in at least four countries had privately discussed ways they could manipulate Kushner by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.
The nations included the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the Post reported, citing current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter. The newspaper said it was unclear if any of those countries had acted on the discussions, but said Kushner's contacts with foreign government officials had raised concerns within the White House and were among the reasons Kushner had not yet been able to obtain a permanent security clearance.
Intelligence officials expressed concern that Kushner's business dealings were a topic of discussion in conversations he was having with foreign officials about foreign policy issues of interest to the U.S. government, a former intelligence official said.
The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss Kushner's security clearance review, said there was a difference of opinion among intelligence officials about the significance.
Some believed Kushner knew his business dealings would likely come up in the conversations and was too naive or inexperienced to know how to exit the topic in light of his position as Trump's adviser, the official said. Others thought Kushner knew the topic would likely surface and used the opportunity while talking to the foreign officials to engage in conversations about his business interests.
Either way, intelligence officials were concerned because there were instances where the discussions either crossed the line or straddled the fence of what would be appropriate given his White House position, the official said.
The official said Kushner's conversations themselves were not surveilled, but details about what was discussed in meetings with the president's son-in-law came from surveillance conducted on certain foreign individuals abroad. According to the official, the information was known from the beginning of the FBI's background investigation work, which started after Kushner joined the White House. In some cases, the intelligence revealed discrepancies in the information Kushner disclosed on his security clearance application about foreign contacts, the official said.
Kushner's contacts with foreign officials also have been a part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, a former U.S. official told the AP. Mueller's team, in its interviews for the ongoing Russia probe, has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders.
The Kushner Cos., for example, had attempted to raise money for its struggling 666 Fifth Avenue skyscraper in New York from a large Chinese insurer with ties to the ruling Communist Party. Those talks ended after lawmakers and government ethics experts expressed worry that China could be using a deal to curry favor with the White House.
Kushner stepped down as CEO of his family's real estate company to join his father-in-law's administration.
With a top-secret clearance, Kushner would have had access to information about covert operations and intelligence sources and methods. With a secret clearance, he would still have access to intelligence assessments, but not necessarily the information behind why the U.S. knows what is being shared with him.
The downgrade would mean that anyone giving top-secret material to Kushner could be accused of mishandling classified material, according to David Priess, who wrote a history of the President's Daily Brief, the highest-level intelligence document produced in the United States. Still, a president has the ultimate authority to classify or declassify information, so he could show the brief -- covering hot spots around the globe, U.S. covert operations and intelligence about world leaders-- "to whomever he damn well pleases," Priess tweeted.
The White House's handling of security clearances has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of revelations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter had worked for more than a year with only interim clearance. Porter, whose job gave him constant access to the most sensitive of documents, had been accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. The White House has repeatedly changed its timeline about who knew what and when about the allegations.
Kushner has been forced to repeatedly correct omissions in his "SF-86," the government-wide form used to apply for clearances, as well as his financial disclosure forms, which experts said could delay or even nix his chances of earning a clearance through the normal process.
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