Officials in Israel and three other countries discussed ways they could manipulate White House official Jared Kushner by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to a report Tuesday.
Current and former US officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter told The Washington Post that officials in Israel, the United Arab Emirates, China, and Mexico saw opportunities to leverage Kushner, who is son in law to US President Donald Trump and like the president comes to government with little policy experience and a wide web of business interests around the world.
The newspaper said it was unclear if any of the countries had acted on the discussions.
The report came as news broke that Kushner’s security clearance had been downgraded Friday after he failed to gain permanent authorization. According to the Washington Post, US officials were aware of Kushner’s vulnerability because of his foreign contacts and factored that into the decision to keep him from gaining full clearance.
Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials have been a part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, a former US official told the AP. Mueller’s team, in its interviews for the ongoing Russia probe, has asked people about the protocols Kushner used when he set up conversations with foreign leaders.
The paper quoted an official as saying that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in those talks, and that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had brought up concerns in daily intelligence briefings.
The paper did not say what business interests or leverage Israel might try to gain with Kushner, who is heading up the Trump administration’s efforts to put together a peace plan. He has visited Israel several times and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was a family friend over a decade ago, though Palestinians have boycotted the White House’s peace efforts since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6.
Kushner stepped down as CEO of his family’s real estate company to join his father-in-law’s administration, but is still seen as closely linked to the family business.
Some of the concern about business interests colliding with his policy role have revolved around efforts by The Kushner Cos. to raise money for its struggling 666 Fifth Avenue skyscraper in New York from a large Chinese insurer with ties to the ruling Communist Party. Those talks ended after lawmakers and government ethics experts expressed worry that China could be using a deal to curry favor with the White House.
According to the Washington Post, other possible foreign investors have also shied away from the business for fears of it looking like a conflict of interest.
A White House spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment. There was no immediate comment from Israeli authorities.
The news that Kushner’s security clearance was downgraded has set off rampant speculation among Trump allies that Kushner’s days in the White House might be numbered. Tuesday saw the announcement of the departure of a top Kushner aide in the White House, deputy communications director Josh Raffel, the third departure of a Kushner ally in the West Wing in as many months. And the selection of a Kushner ally, Brad Parscale, to serve as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager appeared to some as a way to provide Kushner with a convenient off-ramp from his White House duties.
Kushner had been operating with an interim clearance at the “top secret/sensitive compartmented information” level for more than a year. Now he is only authorized to access information at the lower “secret” level, according to a White House official and a person familiar with the decision, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither source was authorized to discuss the decision publicly.
Chief of staff John Kelly ordered that White House officials with interim clearances pending since before June 1, 2017, lose their access to the nation’s deepest secrets if they hadn’t received permanent clearances by last Friday. A White House official confirmed to The Associated Press that Kelly’s order has been implemented.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that she would not comment on individual security clearances but called Kushner “a valued member of the team, and he will continue to do the important work that he’s been doing since he started in the administration.”
Kushner’s portfolio once included the US relationships with China and Japan and a host of domestic priorities, including infrastructure, trade and economic development. But his freewheeling reach in the foreign policy space — which was viewed as undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — had already been curtailed somewhat under Kelly.
Still, Kushner is reportedly said to have reviewed the highly secret presidential daily brief and has been in the room for some of Trump’s most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions.
Kushner is one of dozens of White House aides who have been working without permanent security clearances for the better part of a year.
With a top-secret clearance, Kushner would have had access to information about covert operations and intelligence sources and methods. With a secret clearance, he would still have access to intelligence assessments, but not necessarily the information behind why the U.S. knows what is being shared with him.
The downgrade would mean that anyone giving top-secret material to Kushner could be accused of mishandling classified material, according to David Priess, who wrote a history of the President’s Daily Brief, the highest-level intelligence document produced in the United States. Still, a president has the ultimate authority to classify or declassify information, so he could show the brief — covering hot spots around the globe, US covert operations and intelligence about world leaders— “to whomever he damn well pleases,” Priess tweeted.
There are three levels of security clearances. Disclosing information deemed “confidential” would “damage” national security. The unauthorized disclosure of “secret” information could cause “serious damage” to national security. “Top secret” disclosures would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.
The White House’s handling of security clearances has come under intense scrutiny in the wake of revelations that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter had worked for more than a year with only interim clearance. Porter, whose job gave him constant access to the most sensitive of documents, had been accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. The White House has repeatedly changed its timeline about who knew what and when about the allegations, and the scandal has weakened Kelly’s standing, both among staffers and the president.
Kushner has been forced to repeatedly correct omissions in his “SF-86,” the government-wide form used to apply for clearances, as well as his financial disclosure forms, which experts said could delay or even nix his chances of earning a clearance through the normal process.
Kushner’s attorney told the AP that Kushner’s ability to do his job won’t be affected by any change to his clearance.
“Those involved in the process again have confirmed that there are dozens of people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for these clearance reviews to take this long in a new administration, and that the current backlogs are now being addressed,” said Peter Mirijanian, a Kushner spokesman.