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Kelly, Kushner tension simmers amid West Wing uncertainty

The existing battle-lines between Jared Kushner and chief of staff John Kelly are further entrenched and new diplomat...

Posted: Mar 1, 2018 2:27 AM
Updated: Mar 1, 2018 2:27 AM

The existing battle-lines between Jared Kushner and chief of staff John Kelly are further entrenched and new diplomatic challenges have arisen after the decision to downgrade Kushner's security clearance, people familiar with the matter say.

For Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump, news of his diminished clearance came moments before a potentially more damaging headline: that officials from four countries had discussed ways to manipulate him during their dealings on foreign policy.

The series of events led to uncertainty in the West Wing and an impression among officials that Kushner is again on the ropes. Kelly, who mandated the clearance downgrades, has been regarded as his chief antagonist.

The reality, according to several administration officials, is more complicated.

With the approach of a series of key meetings between Trump and leaders from the Persian Gulf -- a region Kushner has focused on -- Kelly and Trump have agreed that Kushner's input will remain invaluable. Neither believes the clearance downgrade will affect his ability to do the job, though outside national security experts and even some inside the White House wonder how it's possible to hold talks with foreign leaders without access to top secret intelligence.

The White House has consistently refused to comment about individual security clearances or the implications of losing them.

Kushner, whose business dealings and wide portfolio have been the subject of intense scrutiny, told people that he suspected the timing of the story about his foreign contacts was coordinated to be released when issues surrounding his security clearance were in the news, according to a source familiar with his thinking, who described his demeanor in recent days as paranoid.

He is under the impression that officials from the intelligence and national security communities were aware of this information beforehand, the person said, but waited until his clearance issues were in the spotlight to make it public.

'Everyone is out to get him'

Kushner also feels that he has come under fire from his own West Wing colleagues recently, with the notion that "everyone is out to get him," a source said. This person noted that Kushner remains exasperated by Kelly's decision to overhaul the security clearance process, feeling that it is mainly directed at him. He has been asking others, "Why is John Kelly doing this?"

But he's not intending to leave his position in the near-term. And Kelly has told colleagues that he believes Kushner should continue in his job for now, and thinks he'll be able to manage his portfolio even without the top-level clearance.

Trump, meanwhile, has been frustrated by the media coverage of his senior adviser and son-in-law in recent days, telling associates that Kushner is being treated unfairly and that the media has been unnecessarily tough on him. He has also complained that Kelly appears to be making enemies both inside and outside the White House.

Others in the West Wing have expressed exasperation at the constant stream of damaging information that's directed his way.

"I think that there are people out there gunning for folks inside all of the time," said Kellyanne Conway, the presidential counselor, on Fox News. "You know, since the moment we arrived here, folks have been throwing logs in our path."

Trump has made clear to Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and other top officials that he believes Kushner to be performing essential work and wants him to continue, particularly in regard to the Middle East. Top envoys from the Gulf are expected in Washington over the next several weeks, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia -- the young leader seen by some as a reformer with whom Kushner has fostered deep and friendly ties.

Trump has told his aides that Kushner should be involved in the planning for those meetings but has not specifically mandated he be provided an exemption to view top secret material about the countries in question.

Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, another senior aide, "have to" stay on with Trump, a person close to the White House said.

"They have the President's back," the person said. "It comes with some distraction."

Pervasive uncertainty

As aides were informed individually last week that their interim "top secret" clearances would be stripped, a sense of uncertainty pervaded among the advisers and officials who remain with permanent high-level access.

Those who still enjoy access to the nation's deepest secrets will now be responsible for cordoning off that information from those with only "secret" clearances -- or be in violation of federal law, which punishes unauthorized disclosure of classified information with up to ten years in prison.

That's provided national security officials -- careerists and political appointees alike -- with a sense of caution. One official described the mood as "walking on eggshells" to uphold the law.

Adding to the sense of uncertainty is a lack of clarity on who exactly has been stripped of their temporary clearances. Advisers have been told there are dozens of aides who previously had access to "top secret" information but who now only have access to "secret" -- but a comprehensive roster of those with downgraded access hasn't been widely circulated.

In Kushner's case, there is evidence that he is turning to the domestic policy areas of his portfolio as the security clearance matter unfolds. He was meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss prison reform, an area he has said holds special meaning since his father served time in prison on tax evasion and witness tampering charges.

It was less clear how the dozens of other officials who now have downgraded clearances will proceed in their positions. Kushner is unique in focusing on a wide swath of domestic and foreign issues. Other aides are more narrowly focused.

CNN's Pamela Brown and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

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