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White House Overturned 25 Denied Security Clearances, Whistleblower Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Democrats who now control the House have a keen interest in the way the White House handles classified information. For one thing, President Trump won election after a campaign in which he accused his opponent of mishandling it. For another thing, it is classified information, including secrets considered vital to national security. And now House Democrats say a non-partisan career staff member of the White House accused the administration of serious lapses. Tricia Newbold spoke with the committee, and a summary of her testimony put out by Democrats says that as many as 25 people who were originally denied security clearances later got them anyway.

Congressman Gerry Connolly is a Virginia Democrat and a member of the House Oversight Committee, also a chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee, and he's on the line. Congressman, good morning.

GERALD CONNOLLY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How serious are these lapses, really?

CONNOLLY: I think they're very serious. I mean, remember, you know, this is the White House. This is not, you know, background checks for people working at Dairy Queen. And, you know, we have to take this very seriously. Some of the highest levels of intelligence and national secrets, you know, are funneled through the White House; they have to be reviewed by people working there. And so we want to make sure everybody is properly cleared who works at the White House.

INSKEEP: OK. So - but let's follow up there; you said some of the highest levels of intelligence. That's a good reminder that there are different levels of classification, different importance of different kinds of secrets. And Republicans have questioned how important these 25 people really were. Are there individuals among the 25 who had access to the highest security clearances, the highest level of secrets?

CONNOLLY: I believe so. But, you know, I don't even accept the Republican argument. (Laughter) You know, if you look at the espionage and, you know, foreign powers trying to turn people, often they try to find people who are in lower-level jobs, who don't bring attention to themselves, who are in a position to listen and report to that foreign adversary. So in the White House, every level matters.

INSKEEP: Even though, as Republicans will say in their own response to this, some of the 25 were quite low-level, at least one of them was just a custodian?

CONNOLLY: Yeah, but again...

INSKEEP: Is that correct, one of them was a custodian?

CONNOLLY: Well, that's what they assert. I don't know that to be true because we have tried to protect the identities of the people that have been identified by Miss Newbolt. But even if it is, my point pertains - that doesn't mean - they're working at the White House. That doesn't mean that somebody doesn't try to turn them. I'm not saying someone did, but I am just saying the importance of their security clearance as a custodian is very different than that of a custodian at a bank.

INSKEEP: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been the focus of stories about their security clearances. Are either of them on this list of about 25?

CONNOLLY: I really can't say that, Steve. But we do know from other public reports that Jared Kushner has been the subject of many sets of concerns, including when the president overrode a negative recommendation for the fourth time on Jared Kushner, that when he directed his chief of staff, then General Kelly, to nonetheless grant the security clearance that otherwise would not be given, General Kelly and the White House counsel Mr. McGahn both wrote memos for the record, expressing their concerns about that action.

INSKEEP: And you said you can't say if they're on the list because you're trying to protect their identity. Let me ask the question in a way that we can perhaps protect people's identities. You said that some of the highest classifications of intelligence were exposed here by at least some of these individuals. On this list of 25 people, are there individuals who had regular, constant, daily contact with the president of the United States?

CONNOLLY: Probably.

INSKEEP: Probably? I mean, you know who the people are. How can you not know, one way or the other?

CONNOLLY: Actually, we have protected the identities. I don't know the identities. I mean, I can guess, like you can guess. But we have actually been pretty strict within the committee not to identify the individuals. There's Individual No. 1 and Individual No. 2, for example, in the memo you referred to, but they're not identified, and they weren't identified for us.

INSKEEP: Except as Official One or Two.

CONNOLLY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Oh, so even you may not know everybody who's on this list.

CONNOLLY: That's right.

INSKEEP: Now, there is a name who's out there, Carl Kline, who was a senior official in the White House, that your committee is set to vote today on whether to subpoena him. Why would you subpoena him?

CONNOLLY: Mr. Kline was, in the Trump White House, the person involved in the personnel office who ultimately decided whether to grant security clearances or not. Our whistleblower, Miss Newbold, worked for him. She is a civil servant, however; she's not a political appointee like Mr. Kline. And Mr. Kline kind of handed out security clearances like they were candy, and overruled, you know, Miss Newbold and others who, you know, vetted security clearances and often recommended in the negative because of disqualifying information in the backgrounds.

INSKEEP: One last thing, very briefly - Tricia Newbold, the whistleblower, has a rare form of dwarfism. She is not tall. She alleges that people humiliated her by raising files, necessary files, above where she could reach and raising buttons above where she could reach. Is it clear to you that there was a deliberate effort to retaliate against and humiliate her?

CONNOLLY: Yes. And it's crystal clear, and it's one of the most disgusting and demeaning things this White House could possibly engage in. They suspended her. They threatened to fire her. And then they engaged in real petty humiliations to humiliate and mock her because of her stature. And I think that's one of the sorry aspects of this. She was just doing her job.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks so much for the time.

CONNOLLY: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia. NPR political reporter Tim Mak has been covering this story and has been listening in. Tim, what do you hear there?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, what I hear is, you know, Democrats are trying to investigate this issue more thoroughly. What you don't hear is the Republican side of the story, and Republicans are saying that Democrats on the committee, they're playing politics. They call it a unilateral and partisan investigation. And they're basically accusing Democrats of manufacturing this narrative that the Trump White House hasn't been taking national security seriously enough.

INSKEEP: Can you give us some insight on this Republican contention that some of the people are not so important? Of course, Connolly just said there, in effect, everybody's important; anybody might have access to something serious. Is there a hierarchy, where maybe some people in the White House are just less important than others?

MAK: Well, Republicans are saying that, among this list of 25, include an individual who was a custodian, that a lot of folks who work on the White House grounds need security background checks and security clearances, and that it's not fair to kind of lump together senior officials who did have this adjudication with people who are less senior in the White House.

INSKEEP: OK, Tim, thanks very much. That's NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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