Why Donald Trump (and His Family) Won’t Be Subject to Security Clearance Background Checks
A CIA chef undergoes more scrutiny for his job than does the president to receive the nation’s most closely-held secrets.
The campaign is finally over, but the questions continue to come in. In the aftermath of one of the most contentious political campaigns in recent history many people have expressed concerns about the president and the security clearance process. Here are three of the most recently asked questions, along with their answers.
1. Does the President Have a Security Clearance? (And related: What happens if President-elect Donald Trump can’t pass a security screening?)
The president of the United States is not subjected to a background investigation and doesn’t hold a security clearance in the traditional sense. That may sound strange at first, given the fact that even a chef at the CIA requires a top secret security clearance. But because the president is the person who actually establishes classification procedures, he or she can declassify something at any point.
Procedure aside, it simply wouldn’t be practical for the president to undergo a traditional background investigation process. Particularly considering the logistics nightmare if a background investigator flagged issues – let’s say previous issues with classification procedures or an ongoing lawsuit, for instance.
2. Can a person run for president even if they can’t hold a security clearance?
There are only a few legal requirements for running for president. You must be at least 35 years old, must be a naturalized citizen, and a resident of the US for 14 years. Meeting the eligibility requirements for a security clearance is not one of the requirements. It would take a change to the US Constitution for there to be any suitability or security requirements for the president.
3. Is it common for the president’s family to get security clearances?
Historically, though rarely, there have been presidential family members who have had official positions within the White House. But just as the rules about access to classified information for Members of Congress are traditionally grounded in experience, shaped by “needs and concerns,” so are the rules for a president’s family members.
Presidential spouses, for instance, don’t undergo a security clearance background investigation but are absolutely privy to classified information (simply by knowing their spouse’s schedule!). And many first ladies, from Hillary Clinton to Nancy Reagan, have shaped not just White House decorating but also presidential policy.
“Did I ever give Ronnie advice? You bet I did. I'm the one who knows him best, and I was the only person in the White House who had absolutely no agenda of her own—except helping him,” Reagan famously wrote in My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan.
The roles of first families are still more steeped in tradition than policy, which means Ivanka Trump likely won’t be submitting her SF-86 for review any time soon. But requiring security clearances for presidential advisors -- even family members -- wouldn’t necessarily be bad. While a security clearance grants access to classified information based on need-to-know, it also establishes penalties for failing to protect classified information and ensures individuals are educated on clearance policy.
Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.