President Trump’s White House isn’t famous for sweating the small stuff. Maybe that’s one reason it is stumbling over something known for exacting detail: the security clearance process.
More than a week after allegations of spousal abuse against former staff secretary Rob Porter burst into public view, the administration is still struggling to explain who knew about problems revealed by Mr. Porter’s background check, when they knew them, and what they did or didn’t do in response.
Testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday indicated that White House officials learned about warning signs in Porter’s background as long ago as last summer. Were these signs disbelieved? Did officials ignore them? Do other top White House aides, such as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, maintain access to secrets despite problems with their own security applications?
Lawmakers from both parties are beginning to wonder if the White House’s reliance on temporary clearances for 30 to 40 officials is due to the slow pace of the clearance process, or evidence of a cover up of past events in the lives of colleagues.
“There may be good reasons to give temporary clearances when someone is new to the administration, or a particular matter needs to be resolved ... but those should be extraordinary cases. It shouldn’t be routine that a temporary clearance is extended and extended and extended,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Feb. 14.
It’s possible the heavy use of temporary passes reflects the White House working culture.
Mr. Trump is a manager who appears to thrive on chaos and draw strength from clashing arguments between his subordinates. Meanwhile, many key jobs remain unfilled. The White House moves fast when it can, hits back hard at critics, and isn’t exactly an exemplar of orderly bureaucracy.
GE under Jack Welch, this isn’t. The problem is that classified information is one area where the travel-light fight-tough ethos may not work. It’s espionage 101: Look for officials who handle secrets but may have secrets of their own they don’t want revealed. They’re possible blackmail targets.
“There’s a lack of professionalism here,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s sloppy and it may be dangerous ... you don’t want [classified information] in the hands of people vulnerable to embarrassment.”
Questions about White House chronology
The central question of the Porter case involves allegations from two ex-wives that he physically and verbally abused them, and a direct warning to the White House from a recent ex-girlfriend that he was manipulative and not to be trusted. His first wife has released a photo of herself with a black eye, saying it was caused by him hitting her.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly told staff to say that he moved to fire Porter within 40 minutes of becoming fully aware of the nature of the charges against him. But some White House staffers question that timeline, saying Mr. Kelly and other top aides knew of the details about Porter prior to its becoming public.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that his agency filed an initial report to the White House on its Porter background check in March 2017. It finished and submitted the check in July, filed an updated submission in November, and closed its files on Porter this January.
At least one House panel has already opened a legislative investigation of this incident. On Wednesday Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he would look into why Porter remained at work in the White House after officials learned of the allegations.
“I have real questions about how someone like this could be considered for employment,” said Representative Gowdy in a CNN appearance.
“The chronology is not favorable for the White House,” Gowdy added.
On the other hand, the clearance process is itself not the fastest of machinery. Sheer volume is the cause of that. There were about 4.25 million government employees and contractors eligible for clearances in 2015, the last fiscal year for which full numbers are available, according to a Director of National Intelligence report. That’s a 5 percent drop from 2014, but with 5-year renewals added, keeping these approvals up to date is a heavy workload for the FBI and other agencies involved.
“The system has become too big to manage effectively,” says Steven Aftergood of FAS.
And the clearance and classification system is not rooted in legislation. It is the product of presidential executive branch authority. As such, presidents can theoretically shape it as they wish.
As commander-in-chief, the president gets to decide the rules for access to classified information. That means that President Trump can award clearances to anyone in the White House who fails the standard investigatory process.
“The president can order or grant clearances to whoever he sees fit ... but if the clearance system is used in ways that are obviously self-serving or damaging to security, then there is a political price to pay,” Mr. Aftergood says.
On Wednesday Trump made a brief statement to reporters at the White House, saying, “I’m totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that.”
“And it almost wouldn’t even have to be said. So, now you hear it, but you all know,” said the president.