Kelly Admits Missteps With White House Aides’ Clearances

Embattled chief of staff to phase out interim security clearances

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, seen here with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, has altered how the West Wing handles aides’ security clearances after the Rob Porter domestic assault scandal. (AP/Andrew Harnik file photo)
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, seen here with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, has altered how the West Wing handles aides’ security clearances after the Rob Porter domestic assault scandal. (AP/Andrew Harnik file photo)
Posted February 16, 2018 at 5:48pm

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, under fire after a former staffer’s domestic abuse scandal, has admitted the Trump team mishandled aides’ background investigations, and ordered new steps in how the West Wing handles security clearances.

In a five-page memo to staffers released Friday afternoon by the White House, Kelly alluded to the Rob Porter scandal but also attempted to spread the blame for a process he said was flawed but was one he inherited.

Porter, the White House staff secretary, resigned last week amid domestic abuse allegations from his two ex-wives. The White House disclosed that he handled classified information even though his security clearance background check had not yet been completed.

The matter has “focused immense attention on a clearance process that has been in place for multiple administrations,” Kelly told White House aides. “The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted — especially those who work closely with the president or handle sensitive national security information.”

“We should — and in the future, must — do better,” the retired Marine Corps general wrote.

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Some Democratic lawmakers and women’s advocacy groups have called for Kelly to step down over his handling of the Porter matter. Trump reportedly has asked friends about a replacement. Vice President Mike Pence, however, on Thursday said Kelly should keep his job.

Watch: White House Spokesman — Porter Was ‘Terminated Yesterday’

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Taking charge

Kelly reminded his team in the memo’s first few pages of the changes he made upon taking over in the summer to “systems in the White House” that “needed attention.” He said those changes made “significant progress” to the building’s security clearance processes, which he pointed out were “one of my earliest and most immediate concerns.”

Nevertheless, in a rare move for the president or any of his top aides, Kelly admitted missteps.

“But recent events have exposed some remaining shortcomings,” he wrote. “My goal is to improve accountability while maintaining the critical objectivity necessary for the process to continue functioning without political interference.”

Kelly told his staff that “now is the time to take a hard look at the way the White House processes clearance requests.”

Among the upcoming changes is a new process under which all background investigations “of potential Commissioned Officers should be flagged for the FBI at the outset and then hand-delivered to the White House Counsel personally upon completion.” After that, the “FBI official who delivers these files should verbally brief the White House Counsel on any information in those files they deem to be significantly derogatory,” according to the memo.

That alteration “ensures” that critical background investigation documents will be “differentiated from the ordinary volume of communications and delivered quickly and directly to the appropriate person,” Kelly wrote.

White House officials will also work with their FBI counterparts to “reduce the time lag between discovery of derogatory information from fieldwork to the disclosure to the White House,” the memo reads. Kelly’s “goal” is to be informed of such negative information about senior White House staff “within 48 hours of discovery.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has implied that didn’t happened in Porter’s case, with the White House Personnel Security Office keeping his background check open even after FBI officials had deemed him ineligible for a security clearance and closed their case. FBI Director Christopher Wray dropped that nugget during congressional testimony Tuesday, causing yet another scramble behind closed doors in the West Wing.

To that end, Kelly is also ordering closer collaboration between the personnel security office and the White House counsel’s office to keep politics out of the process — he did not elaborate — and to prioritize notifications of negative information for national security reasons.

Watch: FBI Director Discusses Porter Security Clearance Timeline

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Controlling the process

The staff secretary position has long been a sort of gateway to the Oval Office, with the individual in the post overseeing the flow of documents to a president.

When Kelly took over in August as chief of staff, one of his top priorities was overhauling internal White House processes. A big one was how and what information was placed in front of Trump. Kelly has told reporters he views his top job functions not as managing a likely unmanageable president, but controlling the process by which Trump makes decisions — including the information flow — and managing the West Wing staff.

Porter became an integral — and, by all accounts, effective — part of the structure Kelly put in place to do that. But that also meant handling and reviewing many classified documents, and Porter was never cleared by the FBI’s background checkers to obtain a full security clearance due to the domestic abuse allegations.

Since Kelly knew about the allegations, the White House’s internal processes were questioned by critics and allies alike. For instance, House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy announced this week he is launching a probe into the matter.

“I’m going to direct questions to the FBI that I expect them to answer,” Gowdy told CNN on Wednesday. “And if they don’t answer them, then they’re going to need to give me a really good reason.”

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Porter did have an interim security clearance. Several high-profile senior aides, despite working at the Trump White House for months, have still not been granted full security clearances, with senior officials unable to clearly explain why, beyond vague lines about a backlog.

Over 130 appointees, in fact, reportedly lack full clearance despite holding positions that typically require it. Among that list are Ivanka Trump (the president’s daughter and a senior adviser); Jared Kushner (her husband and also a senior adviser); White House Counsel Don McGahn; Sanders; Dan Scavino, the social media director who spends ample time with the president; Christopher Liddell, assistant to Trump for strategic initiatives; and Raj Shah, principal deputy press secretary.

All have interim clearances, but Kelly indicated in his memo that could change. He wrote that he will “discontinue” interim clearances for staffers whose “investigations or adjudications have been pending since June 1, 2017, or before.” Monthly reviews for “long-outstanding adjudications” will occur “monthly.”

Those who have interim clearances will see their access to “certain highly classified information” lessened, according to Kelly. And he is ushering in a “temporary clearance for a period of 180 days, with an option to extend the interim clearance for another 90 days if no significant derogatory information … has been discovered.”