Leaked memo: White House counsel pushed to downgrade Kushner’s clearance over "serious" concerns

Don McGahn wrote that an FBI background check raised "serious additional concerns" about Kushner's clearance

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published August 31, 2020 12:30PM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner  (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Former White House counsel Don McGahn called for presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner's security clearance to be downgraded over "serious" concerns in his background check, according to a new book.

President Donald Trump overruled career officials in 2018 to grant Kushner a top-secret security clearance despite concerns raised by intelligence officials and the White House. A memo obtained by Times reporter Michael Schmidt for his new book "Donald Trump v. The United States" shows that McGahn argued that Kushner's clearance should be downgraded over those concerns, according to an excerpt published by Axios.

"The information you were briefed on one week ago and subsequently relayed to me, raises serious additional concerns about whether this individual ought to retain a top security clearance until such issues can be investigated and resolved," McGahn wrote in a memo to then-White House chief of staff John Kelly following a routine FBI background investigation into Kushner.

It is unclear what information set off the alarm bells. McGahn wrote in the memo that he had been unable to be briefed or "access this highly compartmented information directly."

"Interim secret is the highest clearance that I can concur until further information is received," McGahn wrote.

By downgrading Kushner's security clearance, Trump's son-in-law and top adviser had his access to the Presidential Daily Briefing and other "highly sensitive intelligence that exposed sources and methods" restricted, Schmidt wrote.

McGahn did note in the memo that the investigation could ultimately be resolved in Kushner's favor and that Trump could simply "disregard any security concerns and circumvent any standard procedures and grant Kushner the security clearance himself," according to Schmidt.

And that is what Trump did. The president "ordered" Kelly to give Kushner top-secret clearance in 2018, according to a contemporaneous internal memo written by Kelly. Kelly and McGahn's memos contradicted Trump's claim that he had nothing to do with Kushner being granted top-secret clearance despite concerns raised by the FBI about his foreign contacts.

Representatives for Kushner also insisted that there was nothing suspicious about his security clearance.

"In 2018, White House and security clearance officials affirmed that Mr. Kushner's security clearance was handled in the regular process with no pressure from anyone," a spokesman for Kushner said last year.

Though the details that caused the CIA and others to prevent Kushner from accessing top-secret intelligence remain unclear, many of Kushner's foreign contacts have been reported in the press.

The Washington Post reported in 2017 that Kushner told top Russian officials that he wanted to set up a secure backchannel between Trump's transition team and the Kremlin in late-2016.

Kushner, whose family has extensive ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also reportedly tried to get Russia to torpedo the Obama administration's plan to abstain on a United Nations vote condemning illegal Israeli settlements.

Kushner was also involved in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer that had promised Donald Trump Jr. dirt on Hillary Clinton and frequently met with top United Arab Emirates emissary George Nader during the campaign.

Kushner also has close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner has reportedly fed bin Salman names of Saudis disloyal to him, and the crown prince bragged that Kushner was "in his pocket," according to The Intercept.

The White House refused to cooperate with a House Oversight Committee investigation into Kushner's security clearance. Democrats have repeatedly called for Kushner's clearance to be revoked and criticized Trump for putting national security in danger by overruling intelligence officials' concerns.

"Worse still was the White House's oft-repeated lie that Kushner had been granted the clearance at the conclusion of a normal process. Reports indicate, moreover, that Kushner's access to the nation's most tightly held secrets, which require separate adjudication by the Intelligence Community, was restricted. This is a clear indication of the deep unease that national security officials have about Kushner's suitability," Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said last year, adding, "There is no nepotism exception for background investigations."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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