President Donald Trump’s decision to punt the issue of whether Jared Kushner can keep his access to sensitive government secrets without a full security clearance to his chief of staff, John Kelly, has put him in a tricky position, stuck between the rules on one side and the president’s family on the other.
Trump's ad hoc decision not to intervene in the clearance process on behalf of his son-in-law and senior adviser in effect left both Kelly and Kushner in limbo, prolonging an uncomfortable situation that White House aides say is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Kelly does not plan to recommend to the president that he grant Kushner a waiver, but he is unlikely to resign if Trump ultimately decides to do so, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
There have been times over the past year when the president, still a relative newcomer politics, has not fully understood the scope of his powers. During the course of discussions over whether to pardon former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example, he was not aware that he could pardon somebody during the course of a criminal proceeding, according to one White House aide.
But Trump has a better understanding of the wide-ranging extent of his power over the clearance process, aides say, which is virtually absolute. Through his executive power, he could solve Kushner’s clearance headache with the stroke of a pen.
The president is hesitant to intervene in the process due to the potential blowback he would suffer in the news media if he gives Kushner a pass, according to one White House aide, and on Friday, he officially passed the baton to Kelly.
“That’ll be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot and General Kelly will make that call,” Trump said at a news conference last week. “I won’t make that call. I will let the general…make that call.”
The issues surrounding Kushner’s security clearance ratcheted up when Kelly learned in the fall that the White House security officer was unlikely to green light a permanent security clearance for Kushner any time soon as a result of information received from the FBI.
Since then, Kelly had grappled with how to handle the dozens of White House aides operating on permanent clearances precisely because Kushner was among them, as the Washington Post first reported, even telling his closest confidants at one point that he planned to dismiss all of them – including Kushner, according to one of those confidants, who is also a senior administration official.
The chief of staff, who formerly served as secretary of Homeland Security, was warmly welcomed by Kushner and Ivanka Trump last July after the ouster of Reince Priebus, but one of Kelly’s most obvious challenges when he arrived in the White House last summer was to crack down on the freelancing that dozens of White House aides were doing, including Kushner.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has complained more than once about the perceived encroachment on his turf by Kushner, who is responsible for Israeli-Palestinian issues but also deals, at times, with the U.S. relationship with Mexico and China, as well as by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. “We can’t have four secretaries of state,” Tillerson has said.
It’s a complaint and a criticism Kelly has repeated in the same terms – one that landed wrong with Kushner, who, when discussing a controversial matter with the chief-of-staff, responded tartly, “No, but we need a secretary of state who is supportive of the president.”
Though the White House has repeatedly declined to discuss the security clearance status of any of its employees, Kelly took the rare step last week of issuing a statement voicing his confidence in Kushner.
Days earlier, he sent a memo overhauling the clearance process asking the F.B.I to hand deliver its background investigations on White House aides to the office of the White House counsel, and to verbally brief the White House counsel on any major red flags that emerged during the course of the investigation.
“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” Kelly said in the statement.
While some in the White House noted that Kelly seemed to have circumscribed Kushner’s duties – Kelly, for example, made no mention of Kushner’s role as head of the Office of American Innovation, established last year to modernize the federal government – others were skeptical that statement or the new guidelines would have any material impact.
“If it starts preventing him from doing what he wants to do, he’ll figure out a workaround,” a senior administration official said of Kushner’s security clearance troubles. “All of this stuff is basically just cosmetic talk.”