President Barack Obama on Tuesday named veteran Secret Service agent Julia Pierson as the agency’s first female director, signaling his desire to change the culture at the male-dominated service, which has been marred by scandal. Pierson, who most recently served as the agency’s chief of staff, will take over from Mark Sullivan, who announced his retirement last month. The agency faced intense criticism during Sullivan’s tenure for a prostitution scandal during preparations for Obama’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, last year.
The incident raised questions within the agency — as well as at the White House and on Capitol Hill — about the culture, particularly during foreign travel. In addition to protecting the president, the Secret Service also investigates financial crimes. “Over her 30 years of experience with the Secret Service, Julia has consistently exemplified the spirit and dedication the men and women of the service demonstrate every day,” Obama said in a statement announcing Pierson’s appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation.
At the Secret Service, Pierson has served as deputy assistant director of the office of protective operations, assistant director of human resources and training and chief of staff. She started in 1983 as a special agent in Miami. Before that, she was a police officer in Orlando, Fla. “Julia is eminently qualified to lead the agency that not only safeguards Americans at major events and secures our financial system, but also protects our leaders and our first families, including my own,” Obama said. “Julia has had an exemplary career, and I know these experiences will guide her as she takes on this new challenge to lead the impressive men and women of this important agency.”
Thirteen Secret Service employees were caught up in last year’s prostitution scandal. After a night of heavy partying in the Caribbean resort city of Cartagena, the employees brought women, including prostitutes, to the hotel where they were staying. The incident became public after one agent refused to pay a prostitute and the pair argued about payment in a hotel hallway. Eight of the employees were forced out of the agency, three were cleared of serious misconduct and at least two have been fighting to get their jobs back. The incident took place before Obama arrived in Colombia and the service said the president’s safety was never compromised. But news of the scandal broke during his trip, overshadowing the summit and embarrassing the U.S. delegation.
Sullivan issued a new code of conduct that bans employees from drinking within 10 hours of starting a shift or bringing foreign nationals back to their hotel rooms. Sullivan apologized for the incident last year during testimony before a Senate panel.
Justice Kennedy, the pivotal swing vote on the Supreme Court, announces retirement
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced Wednesday that he is retiring from the Supreme Court, a move that gives President Trump the chance to replace the court’s pivotal justice and dramatically shift the institution to the right, setting up a bitter partisan showdown on Kennedy’s successor.
“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Kennedy, who is stepping down July 31, said in a statement.
Kennedy, 81, joined the court in 1988 and has been its most important member for more than a decade. The Californian, who was chosen by President Ronald Reagan, has cast the deciding vote on the court’s controversial Citizens United campaign finance decision, the constitutional right to same-sex marriage and the continued viability of affirmative action.
On almost every major issue that has faced the court in recent years, neither the court’s liberal, Democratic-appointed justices nor Kennedy’s fellow Republican-appointed conservative colleagues could prevail without his swing vote.
His decision likely will make Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. the central justice on the nine-member court. Roberts, 63, has shown himself to be well to the right of Kennedy.
Washington could be in for an epic battle over Kennedy’s replacement. While Senate Democrats lack the numbers to deny the seat to whoever Trump chooses, they will ratchet up the stakes of the choice.
It will be the first time since Justice Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall more than 25 years ago that a new justice could radically change the direction of the court. Since then, new members added to the court have replaced justices of the same general ideology.
Kennedy is a courtly presence on the court, with a gentlemanly demeanor and a jurisprudence based on the respect the Constitution provides for individual liberty and dignity.
He was a compromise choice for Reagan, who had first nominated the more controversial conservative Judge Robert Bork for the position. The Senate voted him down.
Kennedy has been a disappointment to the right, which has been unable to forgive his vote to uphold the basic underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a woman’s right to choose an abortion. And Kennedy has written each of the court’s major gay rights decision, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which said the Constitution requires that gay couples be allowed to marry.
Liberals came to value Kennedy because he was the best they could hope for. But Kennedy most often votes with the court’s conservatives: He is further to the right on law-and-order issues than Justice Antonin Scalia was, he is comfortable with the court’s protective view of business, and he shared the losing view that the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.
His belief that campaign finance regulation often violates free speech was exemplified in his authorship of the opinion in Citizens United, which has opened the door for an explosion of big money in elections.
Whoever Trump nominated to fill Kennedy’s seat will likely share those views, but not his liberal opinions on social issues.
Trump convinced evangelicals and other conservatives to support him based on the next president’s ability to shape the Supreme Court, a promise he has already begun to fulfill. Early in his term, he successfully place conservative Neil M. Gorsuch on the bench, and he could have the chance to fill more openings.
Of the court’s four liberals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and Justice Stephen G. Breyer turns 80 this summer.
Gorsuch’s appointment returned the court to the status quo that existed before Scalia died. But a court without Kennedy would be a different place.
With Kennedy on board, a five-member majority struck down a Texas law that it said used protecting women as a pretext for making abortion unavailable, and the court continued a limited endorsement of affirmative action.
Many if not all of those holdings would be at risk in a court with five consistent conservatives, the oldest being 69-year-old Justice Clarence Thomas.
Top Justice Dept. official alerted White House 2 weeks ago to ongoing issues in Kushner’s security clearance
A top Justice Department official alerted the White House two weeks ago that significant information requiring additional investigation would further delay the security clearance process of senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
The Feb. 9 phone call from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to White House Counsel Donald McGahn came amid growing public scrutiny of a number of administration officials without final security clearances. Most prominent among them is Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who has had access to some of the nation’s most sensitive material for the last year while waiting for his background investigation to be completed.
A week after the call from Rosenstein, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly announced that staffers whose clearances have not been finalized will no longer be able to view top-secret information — meaning that Kushner could stand to lose his status as early as Friday.
As president, Trump can grant Kushner a high-level security clearance, even if his background investigation continues to drag on. But Trump said Friday that he would leave that decision to Kelly.
In his phone conversation with McGahn, Rosenstein intended to give an update on the status of Kushner’s background investigation. He did not specify the source of the information that officials were examining.
Justice Department officials said Rosenstein did not provide any details to the White House about the matters that need to be investigated relating to Kushner.
“The Deputy Attorney General has not referenced to the White House any specific concerns relating to this individual’s security clearance process,” spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the status of Kushner’s clearance or on information relayed by Rosenstein to McGahn.
Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, declined to comment.
In a statement to The Washington Post last week, Lowell said he had been assured by officials that there was nothing unusual about the delay in Kushner’s security clearance.
“My inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application,” Lowell said in a statement on Feb. 16.
Kushner’s interim clearance allows him to view both top-secret and sensitive compartmented information — classified intelligence related to sensitive sources. With that designation, he has been able to attend classified briefings, get access to the president’s daily intelligence report and issue requests for information to the intelligence community.
Security clearance experts said it is rare to have such a high level of interim clearance for such a long period of time. Typically, senior officials do not get interim access to top-secret and sensitive compartmented material for more than three months, experts said.
The day before Rosenstein’s call to McGahn, The Post reported that Kushner was among dozens of White House personnel who were relying on interim clearances while their FBI background investigations were pending.
White House officials have complained that they have had trouble getting information from the Justice Department and FBI about the status of delayed clearances, including Kushner’s. People familiar with the Feb. 9 call said Rosenstein was returning a White House phone call seeking guidance on the status of his background investigation, among those of others.
Rosenstein intended to speak to Kelly, but the chief of staff was not immediately available, so he ended up talking to McGahn instead, according to three people familiar with the call.
In the call, Rosenstein did not say whether the information that had come to the attention of the Justice Department was learned by the FBI in its standard background clearance investigation of White House staff. Rosenstein also oversees the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who has scrutinized Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials and business dealings as he examines Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
There are conflicting accounts about whether Rosenstein discussed with McGahn the significance of the information and its possible impact on Kushner’s clearance. Two people said the deputy attorney general told McGahn the Justice Department had obtained important new information, suggesting it could be an obstacle to his clearance process. One other said Rosenstein did not discuss the nature of the ongoing investigation.
Bob Bauer, who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration, said administration officials should view Rosenstein’s alert as a strong reason to revoke Kushner’s interim top-secret access.
“It seems to me that he should have restricted access to highly classified material until the resolution of those issues,” Bauer said.
Kushner’s inability to obtain a final clearance has frustrated and vexed the White House for months. As someone who meets regularly with foreign officials and reads classified intelligence, he would typically have a fast-tracked background investigation, security clearance experts said.
During the last six months, McGahn privately discussed the slow pace of Kushner’s background investigation with other senior aides, including with Kelly in the fall, according to a top administration official. Kelly expressed frustration with Kushner’s access to classified material on an extended interim clearance, according to the official. But McGahn and Kelly decided to wait for the FBI to complete its background investigation and took no action at the time to change his access.
Their wait-and-see mode ended abruptly last week, when Kelly issue a new policy that would block staff with interim clearances from receiving top-secret information as of Friday.
The changes were prompted by intense scrutiny that has followed domestic-abuse allegations against Rob Porter, the president’s former staff secretary, who was also working under an interim top-secret clearance.
The move puts a “bull’s eye” on Kushner, a senior official told The Post last week.
Kelly has told associates that he is uncomfortable with Kushner’s uncertain security clearance status and his unique role as both a family member and staffer, according to people familiar with the conversations. He has said he would not be upset if the president’s son-in-law and his wife, Ivanka Trump, left their positions as full-time employees.
On Friday, Trump said he would defer the question of Kushner’s access to his chief of staff.
“I will let Gen. Kelly make that decision, and he’s going to do what’s right for the country,” the president said during a news conference. “And I have no doubt that he will make the right decision.”
In a statement about Kushner issued earlier this week, Kelly said he had “full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico.”
Inside the White House, officials have discussed concerns that the delay in Kushner’s clearance is due in part to repeated updates he made to a form detailing his contacts with foreign officials.
He filed three amendments last year to the questionnaire, after failing to fully disclose contacts reaching back several years. Kushner has said the omissions were inadvertent errors.
Investigators scrutinize those activities to determine whether a person could be subject to influence or blackmail by a foreign government and can be trusted to guard classified information.
Ordinarily, security clearance experts said, the failure to completely disclose all contacts would jeopardize an applicant’s chances of obtaining final clearance.
In addition, Kushner’s actions during the transition have been referenced in the guilty plea of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Prosecutors said Flynn was acting in consultation with a senior Trump transition official, whom people familiar with the matter have identified as Kushner.
U.S. imposes more sanctions on North Korea, Trump warns of ‘phase two
The United States said on Friday it was imposing its largest package of sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear missile program, and President Donald Trump warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.
In addressing the Trump administration’s biggest national security challenge, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned one person, 27 companies and 28 ships, according to a statement on the U.S. Treasury Department’s website.
The United States also proposed a list of entities to be blacklisted under separate U.N. sanctions, a move “aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illicit maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.”
North Korea has been developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland and Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged taunts that have raised fears of war.
In August, Trump threatened to go beyond sanctions by bringing “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” although his administration has repeatedly said it prefers a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Speaking at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Trump made apparent reference to military options his administration has repeatedly said remain on the table.
“If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go phase two,” Trump said. “Phase two may be a very rough thing, may be very, very unfortunate for the world. But hopefully the sanctions will work.”
The sanctions’ targets include a Taiwan passport holder, as well as shipping and energy firms in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The actions block assets held by the firms and individuals in the United States and prohibit U.S. citizens from dealing with them.
The U.S. Treasury said the sanctions were designed to disrupt North Korean shipping and trading companies and vessels and further isolate Pyongyang. They also are aimed at ships located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and the Comoros.
Last month, three Western European intelligence sources told Reuters that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year and that it was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the new sanctions would help prevent North Korea from skirting restrictions on trade in coal and other fuel through “evasive maritime activities.”
“The president is clearly frustrated and rightly so over the efforts that have failed in the past and also over the uptick in testing and the advances we’ve seen in the North Korean program,” a senior administration official told reporters.
At another briefing, Mnuchin stood next to enlarged photos he said showed December 2017 images that revealed ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other products destined for North Korea in an attempt to evade sanctions.
He said he could not rule out the prospect of the United States boarding and inspecting North Korean ships.
Mnuchin said virtually all shipping currently being used by North Korea was now under sanction and the U.S. government had “issued an advisory alerting the public to the significant sanctions risks to those continuing to enable shipments of goods to and from North Korea.”
Mnuchin said the number of sanctions steps taken by the United States against Pyongyang since 2005 was now 450 with approximately half imposed in the last year.
Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, told reporters sanctions already had affected North Korea’s weapons programs and this was shown by the lengths North Korea was going to try to evade sanctions.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington think-tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said Friday’s move was “the largest tranche of DPRK (North Korea) sanctions” released by the Treasury Department.
“The only thing missing here today is action against Chinese banks,” he said. “We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea.”
Tougher sanctions may jeopardize the latest detente between the two Koreas, illustrated by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in the South, amid preparations for talks about a possible summit between North Korea’s Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Nevertheless, South Korea welcomed the U.S. sanctions saying they would “alert those who are illegally trading with North Korea and therefore bolster the international community to carry out resolutions from the U.N. Security Council”.
Taiwan said it was in touch with the United States and would investigate its citizens and entities suspected of helping North Korea. It also called on Taiwan firms and citizens not to break U.N. sanctions.
Reuters was unable to locate contact details for the Chinese companies listed in the new U.S. sanctions.
North Korea last year conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It defends the weapons programs as essential to deter U.S. aggression. It has been more than two months since North Korea’s last missile test.
Kim said he wants to boost the “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue” with South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, after a high-level delegation, including his sister, returned from the Olympics.
In an extension of that rapprochement, the North agreed on Friday to hold working-level talks on Tuesday for the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics on the North’s side of the border village of Panmunjom.
In December, the United Nations approved a U.S.-drafted measure limiting North Korea’s access to refined petroleum products and crude oil, which the North Korea said amounted to an act of war.
In January, Washington announced a round of sanctions and urged China and Russia to expel North Koreans raising funds for the programs.
The U.N. Security Council banned North Korean exports of coal on Aug. 5 under sanctions intended to cut off an important source of the foreign currency Pyongyang needs to fund its weapons programs.
The new U.S. sanctions were announced while Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, is visiting South Korea. At a dinner with Moon at Seoul’s presidential Blue House, Ivanka Trump said the United States wanted to “reaffirm our commitment to our maximum pressure campaign to ensure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized.”
Moon said North Korea’s participation in the Olympics had “led to lowering of tensions on the peninsula and an improvement in inter-Korean relations” and were thanks to President Trump’s “strong support for inter-Korean dialogue.”
Ivanka Trump’s visit to South Korea coincides with that of a sanctioned North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee blamed for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors. His delegation will attend the closing ceremony and also meet Moon.
The Blue House has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet.
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