Kushner loses authority to view top secrets

WASHINGTON: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has been stripped of his top-secret security clearance after months of delays in completing his background check, and will now be limited in his ability to view highly classified information, a White House official and another person familiar with Kushner’s situation said on Tuesday.

Kushner’s clearance was reduced to the level of secret and his official portfolio inside the West Wing, especially with regard to his globe-trotting conduct of foreign affairs on behalf of President Donald Trump, is expected to be sharply reduced as well, the people said.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, both Kushner, 37, and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter, 36, have enjoyed a special status within the White House as both family members and assistants to the president. But the complicated finances surrounding Kushner’s family’s vast real-estate empire and his qualifications for the foreign policy responsibilities given to him by his father-in-law invited scrutiny from the start.

Often seen by Trump’s side during key moments of international diplomacy and presidential announcements during much of 2017, Kushner accompanied Trump on trips to Asia, including China and Japan; to the Mideast, including Israel and Saudi Arabia; and to Europe, meeting with foreign officials in each place. He also made his own trips.

More recently, he has embraced a lower profile as more questions have been raised about his interactions with foreign officials and his financial entanglements.

The decision to reduce his access to classified information was made after John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, announced plans to overhaul the security clearance process at the White House after the resignation of Rob Porter, Trump’s staff secretary, amid allegations of spousal abuse. The change in Kushner’s clearance was first reported by Politico.

Porter and Kushner were among dozens of top White House officials who had been operating on interim security clearances for many months because of issues in completing their FBI background checks. Kelly said in a memo this month that he would revoke top clearances for anyone whose background check had been pending since June 1 or earlier, beginning last Friday.

Kushner’s business background, and the well-publicised financial woes of his family’s real estate empire, have long raised concerns in US security agencies that foreign governments might try to gain influence inside the Trump White House by trying to do business deals with the president’s son-in-law.

Kushner’s dealings with foreign businessmen and officials have been a focus of intense interest, and criticism, since the early days of the administration, when Kushner repeatedly had to disclose foreign contacts that he had initially left off documents that he was required to submit for his security clearance.

Those kinds of contacts are often closely scrutinised especially if there are many of them — by the FBI during background checks. Kushner’s meetings with foreign leaders and multiple business ventures could also be relevant to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The issue of Kushner’s clearance has led to a continuing clash between him and Kelly, to whom he nominally reports. Kushner has pressed to keep his top-level access to some of the United States’ most sensitive classified material, including the presidential daily brief, the summary of intelligence that is presented to Trump every day.

With that access, Kushner has served as a high-level envoy, meeting with the leaders of key allies like Saudi Arabia, as well as the White House adviser charged with negotiating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He has also focused on trade issues with Mexico and China.

Kushner has also led domestic policy initiatives, including technology innovation and prison reform, that typically do not require the kind of access to classified information. Those responsibilities are unlikely to be affected by the change in his security clearance. But it will be a hindrance when it comes to Kushner’s foreign policy role.

“It makes an already difficult situation all the more difficult,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Mideast negotiator and now a vice-president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Knowing stuff gave us an edge. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and now he cannot find out. That is a real liability when intelligence services are driving a lot of the information.”

Kushner’s change in status also raises questions about whether he and his wife might leave the White House and return to their private businesses in New York. Kushner’s allies have repeatedly said that the couple intends to remain in the White House as advisers to Trump. It is unclear whether the new policy might affect Ivanka Trump, who also serves in the West Wing as a senior adviser, a position which typically has clearance to view sensitive or classified material.

Josh Raffel, a spokesman for both Kushner and Ivanka Trump, declined to comment.

Kushner is the highest-profile member of the administration to be affected by the new policy announced by Kelly, and the White House has for weeks deflected questions about whether steps would be taken to address it. In a news conference last week, Trump said he would leave the issue of Kushner’s security clearance to his chief of staff.

One official said that the action taken on Kushner’s clearance was a high-profile example of Kelly’s efforts to enforce his new policy surrounding interim clearances, and that he would hold all aides similarly accountable, no matter how senior or close to the president.

In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday before the disclosure of Kushner’s new security status, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, repeatedly refused to answer questions about his clearance or that of other aides at the White House.

“I’ve been very clear that we don’t discuss security clearances,” she said. “And that’s not changing today, it didn’t change yesterday, it’s not going to change tomorrow, probably not going to change next week.”

Abbe D. Lowell, Kushner’s personal lawyer, declined to comment specifically on the changes in Kushner’s security clearance.

“Kushner has done more than what is expected of him in this process,” Lowell said in a statement. “Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at 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. No concerns were raised about Kushner’s application.”

Lowell added that “as Gen Kelly himself said, the new clearance policy will not affect Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president”.

Government ethics groups that had long argued that Trump’s White House took a cavalier attitude to the handling of top secret information applauded the resolution of Kushner’s clearance issue.

“We are glad that Kushner and the rest of the White House officials still on interim clearances have now lost access to top secret information,” said Noah Bookbinder, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had sent Kelly a complaint requesting that Kushner be stripped of his clearance.

“There continue to be serious questions as to the Trump administration’s handling of secure information; failure to at least downgrade Kushner’s temporary clearance would have set a dangerous precedent by signalling a willingness to tolerate unacceptable national security risks,” Bookbinder said in a statement.

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