Former White House staffers are warning that the Trump administration’s unprecedented move to overturn at least 25 security clearance denials could open it up to significant security vulnerabilities.
The House Oversight Committee revealed this week that longtime White House security employee and whistleblower Tricia Newbold told members of Congress that during the first two years of President Donald Trump’s administration, the White House had overturned dozens of security clearances originally denied by the White House security office.
“This is not an isolated incident, but part of what is becoming a pattern by the president and White House officials of negligently handling sensitive information,” Rudy Mehrbani, former director of the Presidential Personnel Office at the White House, told ThinkProgress Wednesday.
“Having been through the security clearance process at the White House three times myself, it started to dawn on me how significant of a problem this really is,” Mehrbani, who worked in several roles in the Obama administration, explained.
Presidents of both parties have supported this meticulous process to ensure that the individuals who see the nation’s most sensitive information can’t be compromised by adversaries and can be trusted with the information both in their current positions and after they leave them. “[I’m] deeply concerned by their disregard for what is really an important system and one of our defenses against sabotage or attacks,” Mehrbani said.
Newbold, an 18-year veteran of the White House Personnel Security Office, has said she flagged numerous clearance requests from the Trump administration over the past two years for matters such as ties to foreign influence, conflicts of interest, criminal conduct, financial problems, and drug abuse. When she objected to her denials being repeatedly overturned, she claimed she faced workplace retaliation from her former supervisor, Carl Kline.
Newbold has a rare form of dwarfism, and as she described to NBC, her supervisor repeatedly moved files to a shelf she could not reach, which she described as “humiliating.”
She was later temporarily suspended without pay and now worries about the fate of her job, but nevertheless stood by her decision to come forward. “The protection of national security is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue; it’s an American issue,” Newbold this week.
Newbold also claimed this week that when many of the clearance denials were overturned, they weren’t properly memorialized with explanations as to how the concerns were being mitigated — meaning there may be little to no documented evidence as to how these decisions were authorized. Newbold also reported an unusually high number of interim clearances, meaning many people saw classified information and were later deemed unsuitable for that access.
The House Oversight Committee has since taken up the task of investigating Newbold’s claims, including issuing four subpoenas.
Congressional Republicans have responded by attempting to paint Newbold as disgruntled and downplay her concerns. Of the 25 whose denials were overturned, they claim, only four or five were denied for “very serious reasons.”
But even if that framing turns out to be accurate, it would still be unprecedented.
Nelson Cunningham, a lawyer who served previously under President Bill Clinton, noted on MSNBC Monday night that, within the first two years of that administration, only two denials were ever overturned. Both denials had been issued for past drug use.
That is in no way comparable to 25 cases in which “political decision-makers overruled the career security professionals,” Cunningham said. “I have never heard of anything like that.”
Mehrbani estimated there were about 325 to 350 appointees in the White House Office during the Obama administration — to have 25 Trump appointees with clearances granted despite their denials was a “huge percentage.” It also bears no comparison to the Obama administration, which overturned only one security clearance denial.
“For 25 folks to be denied, and then not just denied but for them to be overturned, is simply extraordinary,” he said.
Another former White House staffer who worked in the personnel office during a previous administration could not recall any instance of an appointee being confirmed over the objections of the Personnel Security Division. The staffer, who spoke to ThinkProgress on condition of anonymity because of the nature of their current employment, recalled one instance in which a person was let go because a circumstance in their life changed that violated the terms of their clearance. The employee was immediately led out of the building.
Mehrbani never had an opportunity to convey such perspectives to the Trump administration; the Trump transition was famously chaotic, and this extended to personnel hiring processes.
“After Election Day, and after Chris Christie’s team was removed from the transition, I did not have a single meeting with my successor in the White House Presidential Personnel Office,” Mehrbani said.
He said he left behind several memos about the political appointments process, but was never able to give an in-person briefing for the incoming Trump administration staff.
“I left behind those briefing memos,” he said. “Whether they read them is anyone’s guess.”
He added, “The way that I’ve seen the appointments process and the vetting process generally work out, I frankly don’t think they have much respect for it at all. I suspect they view it as just a bureaucratic hurdle, not really appreciating the need to conduct full and complete background investigations, conflict of interest analyses, and other vetting materials prior to selecting and nominating individuals.”
The full list of 25 individuals whose clearance denials were overturned has not yet been made public. On Thursday, The Washington Post identified one of them as Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and noted he was determined to have “too many ‘significant disqualifying factors’ to receive a clearance.” Kline reportedly overrode that decision anyway.
During an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham earlier in the week, Kushner pushed back on a previous report from NBC News that said he had been denied a security clearance. “I can say over the last two years that I’ve been here, I’ve been accused of all different types of things, and all of those things have turned out to be false,” Kushner said.
Kushner infamously made over 40 revisions to his original financial disclosures — necessary to gain a security clearance — adding millions of previously undisclosed assets, including at least some financial ties to Russia in the months following his appointment as presidential adviser. Last year, he was stripped of his access to top-secret documents due to the ongoing back-and-forth over his permanent security clearance application. His top security clearance was later reinstated in May 2018.
Adviser Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, is also thought to be included on the list of 25 people whose clearances came under scrutiny this week. The House oversight committee has additionally sought information about national security adviser John Bolton.
Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Rudy Mehrbani as saying there 325 employees in the White House office during his tenure in the White House Presidential Personnel Office. It has been updated to correctly read “325 to 350 appointees” instead.