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Sources: Mueller probe stymies Kushner security clearance

Jared Kushner has been unable to obtain a full security clearance in part because of special counsel Robert Mueller's...

Posted: Feb 23, 2018 10:44 AM
Updated: Feb 23, 2018 10:44 AM

Jared Kushner has been unable to obtain a full security clearance in part because of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, is unlikely to obtain the full clearance as long as the special counsel's probe is ongoing, one of the sources said.

Kushner's application for a top-level security clearance has been held up for over a year in part because it cannot be completed while the special counsel's team continues to probe Kushner's contacts with Russians and his financial dealings with foreigners, the sources said. During that time, Kushner has been able to access the government's most sensitive secrets thanks to an interim security clearance. But that access could soon be cut off -- unless Trump steps in with a waiver.

There is no indication that Mueller is close to wrapping up his investigation, and an impending crackdown by White House chief of staff John Kelly aimed at restricting access to classified information for those with long-pending interim clearances is expected to nix or downgrade Kushner's interim security clearance. The combination of factors could leave Kushner without a security clearance for months to come, even as he tackles sensitive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States' relationship with Mexico.

The situation is especially complicated for Kushner because the FBI isn't sharing information with the White House that would typically be relevant in a background investigation for security clearance. That's because sharing such information could compromise the special counsel's probe.

Kelly memo

Prompted by the latest scandal engulfing the West Wing -- domestic abuse allegations against a senior White House aide with a yearlong top-level interim security clearance -- Kelly released a five-page memo last Friday directing aides to "discontinue" interim security clearances for individuals whose security clearance applications have been pending since June 1 or earlier. He also ordered access to highly classified information be limited for the remaining aides with interim clearances.

The White House has declined to say how many officials will be affected by the measure. White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said during Thursday's briefing that he "can't get into specifics regarding individuals' security clearances or numbers."

Kushner's attorney has acknowledged that Kushner's security clearance application has yet to be approved and said "my inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner's level whose process is delayed."

But question marks still loom over the future of Kushner's access to classified information.

The White House has declined to confirm whether Kushner's clearance would be revoked on Friday, with Kelly saying only that he has "full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio."

Kushner's attorney, Abbe Lowell, also declined to elaborate when pressed by CNN, saying only via a statement that the new policy "will not affect Mr. Kushner's ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the President."

Still, Kelly's memo signals Kushner would be swept up in the interim security clearance revocation given that the FBI began its background check investigation into the senior aide prior to June 1.

"Effective one week from today, discontinue any Top Secret or SCI-level interim clearances for individuals whose investigations or adjudications have been pending since June 1, 2017 or before," Kelly wrote in the memo.

Bypassing clearance process

Still, Kushner's security clearance woes could be swept away by his father-in-law, who as president can bypass the clearance process and grant anyone access to classified information. There is no known precedent for a president to make such a decision for anyone seeking a security clearance, according to security experts.

The fate of Kushner's security clearance was not the only uncertainty that hung in the White House in the wake of Kelly's memo last week.

The memo -- which Kelly addressed to only three top aides -- came as a surprise to most White House officials, who learned of Kelly's plans through media reports, two White House officials told CNN.

Combined with the initial surprise, Kelly's memo has fueled uncertainty in the West Wing about how the memo's directives will impact daily operations. Less than 48 hours before the key directive about interim clearances was set to take effect, the officials said they and their colleagues had yet to receive any additional guidance on the memo's implementation.

Beyond the clean-cut revocation of interim security clearances for those with applications pending since June 1 or prior, White House officials have fretted over how Kelly plans to "limit access to certain highly classified information for those individuals working with interim clearance status," as laid out in the memo. It remains unclear how Kelly will limit access to highly classified information.

Other White House officials

It's also not clear whether other White House officials whose actions have been scrutinized by Mueller have been unable to get a decision on their security clearance applications.

White House communications director Hope Hicks, whose role in drafting a misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower has drawn Mueller's scrutiny, obtained a full Top Secret and sensitive compartmented information, or SCI, security clearances -- the highest levels of access -- in November or earlier, according to information obtained by CNN from a US government official. Unlike Hicks, Kushner has drawn Mueller's interest over his interactions with foreign officials, including Russians, and for his financial dealings with foreigners during the transition.

Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents security clearance applicants, said ongoing criminal investigations can derail security clearance applications, even if the applicant is not a target of the investigation.

"I have definitely had cases over the years where there was a parallel criminal investigation ... that was happening at the same time as there was a clearance investigation," Zaid said. "The security adjudicators would delay rendering a decision pending some outcome of the criminal case at least to the extent that it applies to that individual."

As of November, White House counsel Don McGahn -- who has also been interviewed by Mueller's team -- had received a Top Secret clearance, but was still working off interim access to SCI.

More than 100 White House officials were still working on interim clearances in November, according to the information provided to CNN. But a White House official with knowledge of the matter said a slew of officials saw their clearances approved in late December and early January.

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