President Donald Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance last year and overruled concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House's top lawyer, sources said.
Mr Trump's decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that then-White House chief of staff Gen John Kelly wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been "ordered" to give Mr Kushner the top-secret clearance.
The White House counsel at the time, Don McGahn, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr Kushner – including by the CIA – and how Mr McGahn had recommended the senior adviser not be given a top-secret clearance.
The disclosure of the memos contradicts statements made by the president, who told the New York Times in January he had no role in his son-in-law receiving his clearance.
Mr Kushner's lawyer, AbbeLowell, said at the time the clearance was granted last year that his client went through a standard process. Ivanka Trump, the president's eldest daughter and Mr Kushner's wife, said the same thing three weeks ago.
Asked on Thursday about the memos contradicting the president's account, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "we don't comment on security clearances."
The decision last year to grant Mr Kushner a top-secret clearance upgraded him from earlier temporary and interim status. He never received a higher-level designation that would have given him access to need-to-know intelligence known as sensitive compartmented information.
It is not known precisely what factors led to the problems with his security clearance. Officials had raised questions about his and his family’s real estate business ties to foreign governments and investors, and about initially unreported contacts he had with foreigners.
The issue also generated criticism of Mr Trump for having two family members serve in official capacities in the West Wing.
Although the president has the legal authority to grant a clearance, in most cases, the White House’s personnel security office makes a determination about whether to grant one after the FBI has conducted a background check.
If there is a dispute in the personnel security office about how to move forward – a rare occurrence – the White House counsel makes the decision. In highly unusual cases, the president weighs in and grants one himself.
In Mr Kushner’s case, personnel division officials were divided about whether to grant him a top-secret clearance. In May 2018, the White House Counsel’s Office, which at the time was led by Mr McGahn, recommended to the president that Mr Kushner not be given a clearance at that level.
But the next day, the president ordered Mr Kelly to grant it to Mr Kushner anyway, sources said.
The question of Mr Kushner’s access to intelligence was a flashpoint almost from the beginning of the administration. The initial background check into him dragged on for more than a year, creating a distraction for the White House, which struggled to explain why one of the people closest to the president had yet to be given the proper approval to be trusted with the country’s most sensitive information.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. During the presidential transition, he had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.
He later made several amendments to that section of his application. His aides at the time insisted he had omitted those meetings inadvertently. – New York Times