From the very beginning of Donald Trump’s administration, it was evident that the new president had no regard for bureaucratic norms. He refused to fill hundreds of positions with appointees, and more than a year into his presidency many offices still have no nominees.
The president has attempted to justify his failure to fill bureaucratic appointments on the grounds that doing so saves the government money.
“A lot of those jobs I don’t want to appoint because they’re unnecessary to have,” he told Fox News in March. “You don’t need all those jobs. . . . Isn’t that a good thing? It’s not a bad thing.”
“I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don’t need them,” Trump said in an October interview with Forbes.
Cost-cutting may have played some role in Trump’s refusal to make appointments, but it now seems clear that his primary motivation is ensuring that everyone in his administration places personal loyalty to the president above everything else. If no suitably loyal person can be found to fill a post, then it simply will remain vacant, no matter how necessary the position might be.
Trump carried out this policy with existing officials like James Comey, whom he asked to swear fealty in exchange for a second appointment as FBI director. He also refused to hire a number of Republicans who had criticized him publicly during his hard-fought battle for the GOP nomination in 2016.
The president’s principle of personal loyalty above all else appears to have been the ultimate cause of his administration’s latest scandal. Extensive authority and access to classified materials were entrusted to Rob Porter, who appears to be a serial domestic abuser.
While Porter was professionally qualified for his role as White House staff secretary (unlike many people in the administration), he never received official security clearance from the FBI to perform his official duties. As a central information node in the White House, the staff secretary must review and distribute many classified documents to the president and a close circle of advisers.
According to several reports, Porter’s apparent record of physical assault against his two ex-wives was the primary reason why he was never granted the high-level security clearance his job required. (He has never faced criminal charges for his alleged acts of domestic violence.)
Instead, Porter had been operating under a temporary security clearance that had been renewed, ostensibly while his process for a permanent pass was in process.
In a normal administration, officials who cannot obtain a permanent security clearance lose their jobs. Temporary security clearances are only supposed to be granted to staffers while their regular clearance is in process. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, reportedly used this procedure as a means to rid himself of Sebastian Gorka, a former Breitbart News columnist who had secured a high-level national security position, despite facing a valid arrest warrant in Hungary and having filed a no-contest plea on criminal charges of carrying a weapon in a U.S. airport.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director (and Trump appointee) Christopher Wray testified that the agency had completed a preliminary investigation of Porter’s background in March of last year and a full investigation by July. Under law, the White House has final authority on the granting of security clearances. Trump could legally grant top-secret clearance to anyone he wants. But instead of doing that, the administration decided to simply renew Porter’s temporary clearance.
But Porter and Gorka are far from the only top Trump staffers who have continued working on temporary security authorizations while being unable to gain permanent clearances. It's not clear how many people in the administration are employed under such conditions, and Republican congressional leaders, including House Oversight Committee chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., appear to be utterly uninterested in finding out.
In a letter sent last Thursday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on that committee, publicly upbraided Gowdy for refusing to ask the White House to provide details on individuals who had failed to obtain permanent security clearances.
“Because of your multiple refusals, we did not find out about any of these issues until they were reported in the press. In this and many, many other areas, it appears that the Oversight Committee has constructed a wall around the White House in order to prevent any credible oversight whatsoever,” Cummings wrote.
While the desire to keep such information from getting out fits with Trump’s secretive management style, there may be other, bigger issues at work here. Squelching the details about who has interim clearance and why makes a lot more sense when you consider that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close adviser, has never obtained a permanent security clearance. Allowing Kushner to keep his job under those circumstances has served as an excuse for letting others do so as well.
Why has Kushner never received a permanent FBI clearance, more than a year into the Trump administration? There are so many possible reasons, it's difficult to add them all up. Maybe it's about Kushner and Ivanka Trump's close friendship with Wendi Deng Murdoch, the former wife of News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch. She is often rumored to be an asset or agent of the Chinese government, witting or otherwise. It might have something to do with Kushner's presence at the now-infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer the younger Trump believed was offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, courtesy of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kushner’s inability to get a permanent security clearance might also relate to his apparent attempt to set up encrypted lines of communications with the Russian government during the presidential transition, before Trump had assumed office. He might also have difficulty because he formerly headed a foundation which donated money to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and failed to disclose this in his security clearance application.
Intelligence community officials might also be perturbed that Kushner failed to disclose numerous meetings he had with foreign bankers and leaders, including a Russian financial institution that is effectively controlled by Putin.
Several news organizations have also reported, and Kushner has all but admitted publicly, that he ordered former national security adviser Michael Flynn to work with Russia to block a December 2016 United Nations vote that condemned Israel’s settlement policy. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about this to the FBI, and Kushner was referenced anonymously in Flynn’s plea bargain deal, filed by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller a year later.
It’s been rumored for months that Kushner and Ivanka Trump are pondering their exit from the White House, particularly as Kushner's policy portfolio has shrunk and the Mueller investigation appears to be focusing on him. That process might speed up considerably if John Kelly decides to start enforcing standard security protocol now that his favorite, Rob Porter, is out. This internal drama may also explain why Ivanka Trump is reportedly behind a palace coup attempt aimed at ousting Kelly.