One of the White House’s most important diplomats happens to be an artist – with a top secret security clearance.
That means the chief White House calligrapher now has greater access to sensitive information than White House adviser – and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law – Jared Kushner.
Scrutiny over White House clearances in recent weeks has raised questions about top secret versus secret clearance, the application process and the levels of access afforded to those who achieve it.
Kushner was among those White House officials whose security clearance was downgraded from top secret to secret, a significant move cutting back on the information he can access.
But even though Kushner recently lost the level of clearance to know sources and methods, the size of the population with top secret clearances is actually quite large. A 2015 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence pegged the total at 2,885,570 people for confidential and secret clearances and 1,363,483 for top secret clearances.
According to information obtained by CNN from a US government official as of November 2017, among those with top secret clearance is White House chief calligrapher Patricia Blair.
The calligrapher’s office plays a key role in White House diplomacy. The East Wing, which oversees the calligrapher’s office, declined to comment on the role of the chief calligrapher or why a top secret clearance is necessary.
But former chief calligrapher Rick Paulus, who served in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and had a top secret clearance himself, attributed the need for it due to the knowledge of the President’s schedule, as well as the calligrapher’s proximity to world leaders. When he was a White House calligrapher, Paulus told CNN, he “never, ever dealt with intelligence matters.”
The calligrapher’s office: History and function
The office of the calligrapher began informally in the 1860s when first lady Mary Todd Lincoln delegated the task of writing White House invitations to a staff member, a position that eventually needed an entire staff, according to Matt Costello, a senior historian at the White House Historical Association.
In 1977, Rosalynn Carter formally established the Office of the First Lady, the calligrapher’s office falling under the East Wing’s social secretary.
As the US emerged as a global economic power beginning in the 1940s, Costello said, there was a “drastic increase” in state dinners at the White House. Those dinners, which included between 140 and 200 people, required handwritten invitations, envelopes, menus and place cards.
The calligrapher’s function is intertwined with US diplomacy as the US hosts heads of state, demonstrating that the US is committed to working with or wants to improve relations with other countries.
Ahead of a state dinner, Paulus would delve into the history of the hosted country, its symbols, and its fonts, which calligraphers call “hands” throughout time.
“As calligraphers, we feel like we’re playing an integral role. The invitation sets the stage for the whole event. Calligraphers are helping, simply, to set the stage for diplomacy,” the former chief calligrapher said.
“Whatever happens, whatever conflicts they have, if you see your name beautifully written on a placard, your nation’s flag on a menu, you can’t help to soften up a bit,” he said. “Protocol is about human interactions, and as calligraphers, it’s our job to introduce creativity and beauty.”
The sheer volume the office produces is extremely high and gets especially busy during the holiday season. One December alone, Paulus calculated that his office hand addressed 19,000 envelopes.
Over the years, first ladies have taken various levels of interest in the office.
“Hillary Clinton was mostly hands off altogether. Laura Bush was very, very hands on to the point that she’d get into letter styles and looking closely at things,” Paulus said of his time.
It’s clear that the Trumps, who know the hospitality industry intimately, value the calligraphers; First lady Melania Trump has posted multiple images on her social media accounts highlighting their work.
The office is also responsible for special documents from the President, such as certificates.
This Valentine’s Day, the first lady teamed up with the calligraphers to design a special White House valentine, which she distributed during a visit to a children’s hospital in Cincinnati.
The calligraphers keep a low profile with rare media access. Martha Stewart featured the office ahead of a state dinner with Prime Minister Tony Blair in November 2000, and C-SPAN took a tour while the calligraphers prepared invitations for a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II in 2008.
Changes to the office
While the number of calligraphers in the office has ranged as high as eight at the beginning of the Carter administration, there are currently three full-time calligraphers in the office, including the chief calligrapher. Calligraphers Debra Brown and Becky Larimer do not have security clearances, per the data. White House salary disclosure data indicates that Blair made $102,212 in 2017, with Brown at $90,828 and Larimer at $70,100.
There has been change throughout the years at the office – for instance, Paulus ushered Macintosh computers into the office in 1998. The deadlines have gotten shorter and aspects of the work has been taken into the digital era. Design and style has also changed over the years.
“I think there’s a general misconception that things have been forever unchanging, but the calligrapher’s office is one of the places that has changed with the times,” Costello said.
The office is currently fully entrenched in preparations for the Trump administration’s first state dinner. The President and first lady will welcome President Emmanuel Macron of France to the White House on April 24.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Marshall Cohen and Eli Watkins contributed to this report.