The shocking thing about the resignation of Rob Porter—the top White House aide who quit after revelations that he had beaten his ex-wives and was operating under an improper security clearance—is that it happened at all.
Porter’s February 7 departure has not only reignited concern over the proliferation of abusers in the White House, but inaugurated a long overdue inquiry about how security clearances are granted. It is good that this inquiry is finally happening. But, in light of the revelation that more than 30 current staffers have been handling classified information without proper clearances, one wonders whether the damage can be undone. The new repercussions do not outweigh the deeper corruption that made Porter’s tenure possible.
According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, the FBI completed an investigation into Porter’s background in July, but the White House apparently remained unmoved by what was found. Not only was he hired, he was tasked with handling highly classified information—one of more than two dozen top officials in the White House working with interim security clearances. Before his history of abuse became public, Porter was in line for a promotion, despite his inability to get clearance for the job he had. Porter denies the allegations and the White House has defended its decisions, saying that his background check was ongoing when he resigned. On Wednesday, the House oversight committee, which has subpoena power, launched an investigation into the case.
Porter should have never been hired; his history of abuse is not only repugnant in itself, but made him susceptible to blackmail. Now he will leave the White House armed with state secrets that he should have never been given—one of many ethically questionable former staffers to do so. Porter is a symptom of the disease of Trumpism, a toxic plague of misogyny, disloyalty, and deceit that not only shatters ethical norms but leaves U.S. national security in chronic jeopardy.
Trump’s White House has long been a revolving door, with a turnover rate of 34%. While departures of incompetent or immoral staffers have often inspired public relief, they are actually cause for alarm. That revolving door leads into a bustling marketplace of state secrets, one whose temptations should not be shrugged off given that basic standards of loyalty to country have been put into question by this administration’s actions.
Among the departed White House staffers are former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who has admitted guilt in the Kremlin interference probe; white nationalist (and fellow domestic abuser ) Steve Bannon, who has vowed to destroy the United States; and extremist Seb Gorka, who has ties to neo-Nazi organizations and is being investigated by police in Hungary. (Gorka, like Porter, worked as a Trump advisor despite being denied clearance as a result of his 2016 arrest in the U.S. for bringing a weapon through an airport.)
Men who have already colluded with a foreign power, committed acts of violence, or threatened to destroy the U.S. now know some of the country’s secrets, and it’s easy to imagine the damage they could do in the era of WikiLeaks and illicit foreign deals. Fellow federal indictee Paul Manafort, for example, used his access as Trump’s campaign manager to offer “private briefings” to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is a close friend of Vladimir Putin and to whom Manafort is alleged to owe a great deal of money.
The reason the U.S. has traditionally had a rigorous security clearance process is to prevent bad actors like Manafort (or Flynn, or Gorka, or Bannon) from accessing classified information and jeopardizing public safety. Notwithstanding what some have called serious problems with the clearance process—some 700,000 people are waiting to have clearances processed, according to a report issued last week by the U.S. Comptroller’s office—the process has been virtually abandoned in Trump’s White House, leaving us with what appears to be a wandering coterie of rapacious rejects who consider U.S. sovereignty a salable good.
The Trump administration’s disregard for standard security protocol is exemplified not only by Porter and the other interim clearance staffers, but by Trump himself. In May, Trump casually gave state secrets to Russian officials in the Oval Office, a destructive move which in any other administration would have probably led to serious repercussions, but with Trump, was treated merely as a piece of a broader, terrible puzzle. Trump has not only refused to investigate Russian hacking of U..S elections and infrastructure , but proposed a cyber-partnership with Russia. He has refused to enact Russian sanctions, despite a Senate ruling of 98-2 to enforce them, and over the past month, his Secretary of State and four heads of the intelligence community all confirmed he has no plan to stop Russian election interference in the 2018 midterms.
“To which country does my president’s greatest loyalty lie?” is not a question Americans have had to ask before, but Trump, who is more deferential and transparent to the Kremlin than he is to Congress, seems to have made his preference clear. While we do not yet know the full scope of Trump’s Russia ties, we do know that protecting the U.S. from Russian aggression is low on his list of concerns–and that his abuse of executive power extends to the installation of his family members in the White House, despite their own conflicts of interests with Russia and other states.
For over a year, members of Congress have been asking why Jared Kushner—a key figure in the Russian interference probe as well as a struggling businessman with multiple conflicts of interest abroad—has been allowed access to classified information, particularly after it was revealed he had given false information on his security clearance form at an unprecedented level last year. After Kushner lied about or omitted over 100 foreign contacts, Charles Phalen, the head of the government bureau responsible for clearing background checks, told lawmakers, “I have never seen that level of mistakes.” Ivanka Trump, who like Jared works in a vague advisory role that gives her access to classified information, has faced similar inquiries over security form improprieties.
Still, despite Ivanka and Jared having been recognized as a potential internal security risk for an entire year, nothing has been done to revoke their access. (Or, for that matter, that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another protocol breaker on his security clearance form.) Nothing has been done to penalize Trump for his breaches of security either, and nothing has, so far, been done to punish White House officials—like Chief of Staff John Kelly—who covered up breaches by Porter and possibly other staffers.
Trump’s signature move is a demand for a loyalty oath—not to America, but to him. So long as that oath is honored, there are no seemingly no limits on other abuses of power. As a consequence, no true national security exists. Those staffers who dared put country before Trump—like Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and James Comey—have been dismissed and denounced.
Trump’s mafioso-style rule has led to a dangerous situation in which the worst (but most loyal) staffers generally stay on, while those attempting to serve the country are fired or resign in frustration. Porter was an exception to this pattern, and his departure is forcing the security clearance process itself to face renewed scrutiny.
But even if the clearance process is cleaned up, don’t underestimate the damage already done. We do not know what the departed Trump staffers have been doing since they left office, but we know that several behaved as if they were above the law—even, in some cases, working to subvert American democracy. Armed with classified information, these men are now walking national security threats, and it’s reasonable to assume that Trump–loose-lipped, disloyal, and primarily interested in making money and dodging prosecution—may someday be too. Much as it has shattered norms inside the White House, expect the Trump administration to shatter them outside as well.
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