For the better part of a week, Donald Trump’s critics on both sides of the aisle have assailed Trump’s decision to name his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, as the senior adviser in his administration. They have made clear that they have no desire to work with a guy who has not only promoted some of the worst people in the world, but has close ties with them. Well, it turns out that this isn’t just hype. It turns out that under normal conditions, the Breitbart CEO and alt-right guru would probably not pass the standard background check required for someone handling sensitive government information.
As senior adviser to the president, Bannon would need to obtain a Top Secret security clearance. He would need to fill out Form SF86, the standard questionnaire for those seeking access to classified information. The FBI would then conduct a detailed investigation of his allegiances, foreign contacts, and past personal behavior to determine whether he could be trusted with such sensitive information. He would also have to be cleared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
According to Bradley Moss, a lawyer who frequently works on security issues, Bannon is in for an investigation of “everything that he’s been doing since he took over the Breitbart empire”–a process that will be “invasive,” “personal,” and “uncomfortable.” However, even if Bannon flunked the background check, Trump would theoretically have the power to overrule any FBI and ODNI recommendation–a potential throwback to the bad old days when patronage was doled out without regard to such minor details as qualifications and fitness.
Tim Mak of The Daily Beast spoke with a number of experts on the security clearance process. They were unanimous–if Bannon were a rank-and-file government employee, he’d find it extremely difficult to clear the hurdles needed for Top Secret access. After all, this is a guy with documented ties to white nationalist groups, many of whom loudly applauded his appointment. He has not only loudly promoted these groups, but has also promoted a number of European far-right outfits as well–many of whom have not shied away from violence against minorities.
His personal history is equally fraught. You may recall that back in 1996, his then-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, accused him of grabbing her by the throat and arm. The charges were dropped when Piccard didn’t show up for trial. According to divorce records, Piccard claimed Bannon’s lawyer threatened to make her look like the villain and leave her with nothing to live on if she moved forward with the charges.
Additionally, Bannon is suspected of being registered to vote at a Miami home where he doesn’t even live–a potential violation of Florida law. And just this week, the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, a campaign watchdog group, filed a complaint with the FBI alleging that Bannon took illegal payments from two pro-Trump billionaires. According to Mak, there are few known instances of “someone with so many questionable ties” even being considered for such a senior post in the government.
Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists thinks anyone else with Bannon’s dossier would “raise concerns” in a typical background check, and “would never come to the attention of a senior official” if the FBI didn’t clear him. John Berry, a lawyer who works on these cases, thinks that Trump would have to “think long and hard” about overruling the FBI if it didn’t clear Bannon, since it would say a lot about his tolerance for “granting information to people with security concerns.” Moss was even more blunt–Trump would be “expending a lot of political capital” if he greenlighted Bannon. Not that he has much capital on national security–after all, Trump is finding it very difficult to staff his national security apparatus because many people worth hiring don’t think he’s qualified to be commander-in-chief.
When Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, learned about this scenario, he called for the FBI and ODNI to treat Bannon like anyone else seeking a security clearance. He said that if an ordinary person with Bannon’s background would be disqualified, “then he should be disqualified.” He added that if Trump granted the clearance over the objections of the Intelligence Community, it would be “another cause for grave concern” about Trump’s ability to lead.
I’d go further than that. If Trump were to grant Top Secret clearance to someone after being told in no uncertain terms that he could not be trusted with classified information, you could make a convincing argument that it would amount to an impeachable offense. At the very least, it would be grounds to demand his resignation.
The GOP spent the better part of a year falsely claiming that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted with classified information. And now Trump may be about to hire a senior adviser who would probably not pass a background check for a security clearance. The mind reels.
(featured image: screengrab via YouTube)