The White House quietly imposed a ban on new interim security clearances for anyone in the executive office of the president last fall, but let existing employees with interim clearances stay on, according to an email obtained by POLITICO.
The Nov. 7 internal email to senior leaders at the Office of Management and Budget said the White House personnel security office had advised that it would no longer grant interim security clearances. Pending requests for interim clearances were expected to be denied, though exceptions could be requested, according to the email.
Staffers who had already been granted interim security clearances — like former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned last week amid allegations of domestic abuse — could continue to hold them while their background investigations were finished, the email said.
The email does not shed light on the reason for the mandate and POLITICO could not immediately determine whether the policy barring new interim clearances is still in place.
But the email nonetheless indicates that officials in the personnel security office – and perhaps others in the White House – were aware as far back as last year of the potential pitfalls of over-reliance on interim security clearances, which allow staffers to handle classified material while their full clearance applications are under review.
The White House did not comment on the email or the policy changes it described.
Senior White House officials, including chief of staff John Kelly, have struggled to explain why they allowed Porter to stay in his role, which involved access to highly sensitive secrets, despite the existence of a protective order granted to one of his ex-wives. Both of Porter’s ex-wives told the Daily Mail last week that Porter verbally and physically abused them during their marriages, charges Porter has denied.
The White House says senior staff were not fully aware of the scope and severity of the allegations until last week, when the Daily Mail published photographs of Porter’s first wife with a black eye. Multiple administration officials said Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn were informed in broad terms of the problems facing Porter last year.
Kelly has said that he secured Porter’s resignation within 40 minutes of learning the extent of the allegations.
But the week-long firestorm surrounding the White House’s handling of the issue has led to finger-pointing and deep frustration, with some aides wondering if they’re being misled about the full extent of officials’ knowledge of Porter’s past.
An estimated three dozen staffers in the White House, including presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, still only have an interim clearance, according to one person familiar with the issue.
Kelly has privately expressed concerns about the large number of people working in the White House on interim clearances, and he even considered firing anybody who would not be able to secure a full clearance. Kelly had been informed several weeks ago that multiple White House officials, including Porter, would not qualify for permanent clearances.
POLITICO first reported in November that Kushner had not yet secured a permanent clearance. Kushner, according to the administration official, still does not have a full clearance and it’s unclear if he’ll ever get one.
The process of securing a permanent clearance can be lengthy and tedious, according to veterans of Democratic and Republican administration. It requires an FBI background check that, depending on a person’s history, can last for months or sometimes more than a year. The FBI then delivers its findings to the White House, which determines whether a full clearance should be granted.
A former Obama administration official said it was not uncommon for problems with a senior White House aides’ clearance to be flagged to the White House counsel’s office and the deputy chief of staff for operations, who may then brief the chief of staff and others.
“What’s really troubling about all of this to me is if the FBI determined that there was something in [Porter’s] background that would potentially jeopardize national security, this administration does not appear to have taken that side of the equation into account,” said another former Obama administration official who worked on personnel and vetting issues.
It’s unclear precisely what Joe Hagin, who serves as Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations, knew about Porter. A second person familiar with the issue said Hagin became aware last year that there were issues with Porter’s clearance. But a White House aide strongly rejected the notion that Hagin knew about the domestic abuse allegations, adding that he found out about them last week.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday that the bureau had filed an initial report on Porter last March, finished its background check in July, submitted a follow-up in November and had “administratively closed” the file in January.
That timeline appeared to conflict with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ Monday assertion that Porter’s clearance was “handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community” and that it “hadn't been completed” when he resigned last week.
Sanders sought to clarify her comments after Wray’s testimony Tuesday.
“The White House personnel security office, staffed by career officials, received information last year in what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” Sanders said Tuesday afternoon. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”