Ivanka Trump getting West Wing office and security clearance despite having no official role

If there’s one thing this administration needs, it’s another New York liberal whispering in the president’s ear. But then, Trump was always going to consult with Ivanka. What does it matter if they’re doing it by phone or in the Oval Office?

Two novelties here. One: Typically you need an official position to earn space in the West Wing. Ivanka’s not accepting one, possibly in order to make the argument against her under federal anti-nepotism laws harder. (That same argument was made against her husband and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was named an official advisor. The DOJ ended up deeming that okay on grounds that the anti-nepotism law applies only to executive agencies, not to the White House itself.) Two: She’s applied for a security clearance, which is unusual twice over — not only do presidential family members typically not receive them, clearances normally are given only to people who work for the government in an official capacity. She isn’t. And yet.

The powerful first daughter has secured her own office on the West Wing’s second floor — a space next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who was recently promoted to a position on the National Security Council. She is also in the process of obtaining a security clearance and is set to receive government-issued communications devices this week…

As her role in the White House grows — a role that comes with no playbook — Trump plans to adhere to the same ethics and records retention rules that apply to government employees, [her lawyer, Jamie] Gorelick said, even though she is not technically an employee. But ethics watchdogs immediately questioned whether she is going far enough to eliminate conflicts of interest, especially because she will not be automatically subjected to certain ethics rules while serving as a de facto White House adviser.

“Having an adult child of the president who is actively engaged in the work of the administration is new ground,” Gorelick conceded in an interview on Monday. “Our view is that the conservative approach is for Ivanka to voluntarily comply with the rules that would apply if she were a government employee, even though she is not.” A spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump said her role was signed off on by the White House counsel’s office, and the conflict issues were “worked through” with the office of government ethics. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about the unique arrangement.

That’s the same Jamie Gorelick who served as a deputy AG in the Clinton administration before cashing in as vice chairman at Fannie Mae during a period when the corporation was accused of billions in unrecorded losses. She’s tight with the Kushners despite (or because of?) her Democratic pedigree. The fact that Ivanka consulted with OGE and the White House counsel in distancing herself from her businesses before taking this role is good practice, but I don’t know what it means to say that she’ll “voluntarily” follow the same ethics rules as official White House employees. If she ends up deciding not to, how can she be punished?

The fact that she’ll have an office in the White House from which to advise a president whom she’d be advising regularly anyway is less interesting than the fact of her security clearance. Can Ivanka hold a clearance if she doesn’t hold a formal WH job? This issue came up waaaay back in November, a week after the election, when a rumor spread that Trump was already angling to arrange clearances for his children. He spoke up to deny it, but the issue reemerged as Kushner moved towards a White House job. According to some commentators, there was a Catch-22 at work: If Kushner took a formal role, he’d qualify for a clearance but would risk running afoul of anti-nepotism laws. If he didn’t take a formal role, he’d probably satisfy the anti-nepotism laws but arguably wouldn’t qualify for a clearance. “You can’t hold a security clearance as an informal advisor — there is no such concept,” said one natsec lawyer to NBC a week after Trump’s victory. Last night former Dem Rep. Ellen Tauscher made a similar point:

“SCI” is “sensitive compartmented information,” a very high level of clearance which, you would think, Ivanka would need in order to be able to discuss natsec matters frankly with dad. Not everyone agrees that a formal government role is needed for a clearance, though. “Normally,” the Times wrote last November of Kushner, “a security clearance is granted because a person’s job requires access to classified information, or because of a specific assignment that involves secrets.” But:

“The president can authorize clearance for anyone he wants,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s part of his commander-in-chief role. He has broad, essentially unlimited, access in this area.”

Like anyone else, Mr. Kushner would be subject to a background check by the F.B.I. But the president’s authority is so broad, Mr. Aftergood said, that he could override red flags — like fraud, huge personal debt or ties to foreign governments — that would disqualify other applicants.

“I know of no limitations on the president’s ability to consult private citizens about sensitive national security issues,” said a former White House counsel to Obama at the time. If Trump wants Ivanka to have a clearance, as unusual as that may be, who’s going to tell him no?

One last note of intrigue to Ivanka joining the White House. It’s hard not to view the move in light of this dishy WaPo piece from over the weekend about the unlikely alliance of Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus battling “the Democrats” from New York inside the building, specifically Goldman Sachs alums Gary Cohn (head of the National Economic Council) and Dina Powell (deputy National Security Advisor). Priebus is suspicious of Cohn and Powell because they’re moderates, not Republicans; Bannon is suspicious of them because they’re globalists, not populists. If you believe WaPo, they feel threatened by Cohn’s and Powell’s influence with Trump and have joined forces to make sure that Trump doesn’t end up steered in a more liberal, Wall-Street-friendly direction by them. But here’s the kicker: Cohn and Powell are both chummy with Jared Kushner and Ivanka, and as Politico notes up top, Ivanka’s new office will be right next to Powell’s. If there really is a power struggle going on, the Cohn/Powell team just added a huge amount of leverage potentially by bringing Ivanka inside the White House. When asked if Bannon and Priebus fear Cohn and Powell, one senior WH advisor scoffed, “Show me one New York win.” But that’s the point — having Ivanka inside the building every day lobbying her father might make some of those New York wins more likely. If Trump’s policies start inching leftward, it may be because she (and Cohn and Powell) have won the struggle.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023