Trump Likely Couldn’t Get A Security Clearance. What Happens If He Wins?

WASHINGTON — Facing multiple criminal prosecutions and over a half billion dollars in civil judgments, private citizen Donald Trump would almost certainly be denied even the lowest level security clearance, were he to apply.

If he wins the November presidential election, though, he would immediately regain access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets — his financial and legal woes notwithstanding.

“Anyone who would grant Donald Trump a security clearance ought to have his or her clearance revoked,” said George Conway, a conservative lawyer and prominent Trump critic.

Such is the paradox of U.S. intelligence protocols: A person needing access to diplomatic or military secrets must undergo a rigorous background investigation into personal finances and behavior that can take upwards of a year to complete. Unless that person is elected president, in which case all of that screening goes right out the window.

The will of a majority of the voters overrules whatever objections intelligence community professionals might have, and a president has lawful access to every classified, secret or top-secret piece of information the nation possesses.

This would be true even for Trump, who is currently being prosecuted for his refusal to turn over secret documents he took with him to his South Florida country club after leaving the White House. Among the charges against him are alleged violations of the Espionage Act.

“If he’s president, he’s got full on access to whatever he wants,” said Ty Cobb, a lawyer who worked in Trump’s White House. “There’s no legal way to prevent it.”

Indeed, of the nine factors that the U.S. government says are evaluated during a security clearance investigation — drug involvement, criminal conduct, financial considerations, use of information technology systems, United States allegiance, foreign influence, alcohol consumption, psychological conditions and personal behavior and handling protected information — Trump would likely have problems with five of them, a majority.

The United States already underwent a version of this in 2016. Trump had had multiple bankruptcies, had done business with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp in a hotel deal in Azerbaijan, and had been pursuing a high-rise project in Moscow right through the presidential campaign.

“He would have had a tough time getting a security clearance in 2016. Between his checkered financial history, his infamous ‘Russia, if you’re listening’ comment, [and] his associates’ dubious foreign connections, such as his campaign manager Paul Manafort passing information to Konstantin Kilimnik,” said Norm Eisen, a former White House lawyer. Eisen held a security clearance both for that job and when he served as ambassador to the Czech Republic, both under President Barack Obama.

Trump’s lack of interest in abiding by operational security standards became clear within four months of his taking office. On May 10, 2017, in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Trump boasted about U.S. intelligence capabilities — and in the process revealed that Israel had sources within the Islamic State terror group.

Two years later, Trump posted to his social media account a photo of an Iranian launch site that had suffered an explosion — and in so doing revealed the capabilities of U.S. photo reconnaissance satellites.

Trump even ordered staff to give son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret clearance, despite his failure to pass the normal review process.

Yet however dangerous it was to give Trump access to secret material in 2016, experts like Eisen warn, it would be far worse today, when Trump has four separate, active criminal prosecutions against him and is in even worse financial condition — to the point where he’s selling branded sneakers and Bibles. Recently, he flipped position regarding whether to ban the Chinese-owned app TikTok after meeting with an American investor in the company who is also a major Republican donor.

“If he were being vetted as a normal applicant for access, there would be numerous red flags. Extensive overseas financial assets, extensive foreign contacts, massive civil judgments, the Trump Organization criminal tax conviction, etc.,” said Bradley Moss, a lawyer who holds a top clearance to help his clients on national security issues.

“Whoever was processing his SF 86 would look at it and say: ‘not this guy,’” said political consultant and Trump critic Rick Wilson, who held security clearances as a Pentagon employee, referring to the exhaustive form applicants must fill out. “Donald Trump could never, ever under any circumstances, be granted even a secret clearance, given his ties to foreign money, his financial difficulties, and multiple legal issues.”

John Gartner, a clinical psychologist who for years has been warning about Trump’s symptoms of malignant narcissism and, more recently, about signs of potential dementia, said that if substantiated, either condition would be problematic for a normal security clearance applicant.

“They take personality disorders extremely seriously,” Gartner said, adding that Trump of late has exhibited symptoms that, he thinks, suggest the former president is having trouble thinking and speaking. “I imagine that would be absolutely disqualifying.”

Trump’s campaign would not comment about the factors that would prevent Trump from getting a security clearance on his own — except for the allegation that Trump may be suffering from dementia. The campaign claimed that President Joe Biden, not Trump, is the one suffering dementia and demanded that Biden take a cognitive screening test that Trump has taken twice and “aced” both times. “In fact, President Trump believes all presidents should take the test,” Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said.

After Trump’s coup attempt to remain in office despite losing reelection, which culminated in an assault on the Capitol by a mob of his followers, Biden declined to grant Trump security clearance. It’s a courtesy presidents have traditionally offered to their predecessors, with the idea that a recent ex-president could provide useful counsel on White House matters.

The question of Trump’s future security clearance will come to the fore anew after Trump is formally adopted as the Republican Party’s nominee at the summer convention. Typically, major party nominees are given intelligence briefings as a way to prepare them for potential crises should they win the White House.

“After all that has happened since with the criminal prosecution, the civil verdicts, the additional financial exposure, and the expressions of admiration for foreign adversaries, no, he would not be able to get a security clearance today,” Eisen said. “Should he be elected, he would instantly become one of America’s greatest national security threats — perhaps the greatest.”

Of Trump’s four criminal cases, two are based on his actions leading up to Jan. 6.

A federal indictment could go to trial as early as late August, depending on how quickly the Supreme Court rules on Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution. A Georgia case based on his attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in that state could also start later this year.

A New York state prosecution on charges that Trump falsified business records to hide hush money payments in the days before the 2016 election is to begin on April 15, while a second federal prosecution on the secret documents has not had a trial date set.

In 2023, a New York jury found that Trump had sexually penetrated Carroll against her will in an incident in the 1990s, finding him civilly liable for sexual abuse. The federal judge in the case later clarified that Trump’s actions were rape in the “common modern parlance.”

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