President Donald Trump said Friday he will not decide himself whether to allow Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, to keep his temporary security clearance, telling reporters at the White House he’ll leave the matter to his chief of staff John Kelly.
The disclosure marked the latest development in an ongoing drama over Kushner’s clearance, which has been held up amid questions about his background check. It also provided another layer of intrigue to the acrimonious relationship between Kushner and Kelly, who have been at odds over access to the President and the classified materials he views.
It was Kelly who mandated last week that officials who’d applied for security clearances before July, but haven’t yet received permanent access, would be stripped of their interim clearances. That includes Kushner, whose portfolio includes sensitive foreign policy matters like the Middle East and China.
The deadline for stripping officials of their interim clearances was Friday, though it wasn’t clear by late in the day what specific action had been taken.
Kushner’s security clearance has been the subject of intense speculation in the West Wing, where he holds a unique role as a senior adviser but also a member of Trump’s immediate family. Kelly has told associates he wants the matter resolved, but problems have persisted in granting him a full clearance.
Kushner has been unable to obtain a full security clearance in part because of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN earlier this week. Kushner is unlikely to obtain the full clearance as long as the special counsel’s probe is ongoing, one of the sources said.
Two weeks ago, White House counsel Donald McGahn and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed the status of Kushner’s security clearance, according to a source familiar with the discussion. Rosenstein conveyed to McGahn that the clearance process was still ongoing, the source said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said on Friday that Rosenstein “has not referenced to the White House any specific concerns relating to this individual’s security clearance process.” The phone call was first reported by The Washington Post.
The call came amid swirling questions over why former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was allowed to work with interim security clearance given his history of domestic abuse allegations. That episode also prompted Kelly’s crackdown on interim clearances.
Officials at the White House have been working to devise a plan this week that would allow Kushner to continue in his role handling sensitive foreign policy matters without forcing Trump himself to personally intervene and grant him access to classified information, people familiar with the situation say.
As President, Trump himself could grant any clearance to Kushner. But the President’s advisers have determined that taking that step would be drastic and cause deep rifts within the intelligence community and among Trump’s top aides.
Kelly, a retired Marine general, has also made it known that Trump’s personal intervention would pose a problem and possibly undercut his authority in the West Wing.
Instead, Trump on Friday declared he would leave the matter to his top aide.
“That will be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot and General Kelly will make that call,” Trump said at a news conference. “I won’t make that call. I will let the general, who is right here, make that call.”
Trump slammed the background check system on Friday, calling it a “broken system” and insisting “it shouldn’t take this long.”
But in placing responsibility for the matter with Kelly, Trump was handing the contentious issue to someone with a complicated, and increasingly caustic, relationship with Kushner.
Multiple White House officials have said the complications with Kushner’s security clearance have only exacerbated his frustration with Kelly, who has privately disregarded Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, as unserious and meddling.
Trump, however, has given Kelly his full support in efforts to reform the White House’s system of security clearances, and has told his chief of staff that changes need to be made to bring the system into order, according to a person who has spoken to him about the matter. Kelly has interpreted that as a wide-ranging mandate that would include Kushner, the person said.
After questions were raised whether the new clearance policy would affect Kushner, Kelly issued a statement this week saying he had “full confidence in (Kushner’s) 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.”
“Everyone in the White House is grateful for these valuable contributions to furthering the President’s agenda,” Kelly said. “There is no truth to any suggestion otherwise.”
At his news conference Friday, Trump defended his son-in-law, who he noted does not draw a salary.
“Well, Jared has done an outstanding job, I think he has been treated very unfairly,” Trump said. “He works for nothing.”
CNN’s Laura Jarrett, Dan Merica, Shimon Prokupecz, Jeremy Diamond and Dana Bash contributed to this report.