The president of the United States is not subject to a security screening and does not hold a security clearance. Once elected, only time and inclination separate a new president from opening the vaults and knowing the truth about everything. This will come as a great relief to the candidates of both major parties, neither of whom would likely otherwise qualify for a clearance. In the case of Donald Trump: his multiple bankruptcies, the ongoing Trump University lawsuit, and his contact with undesirable foreign nationals (Vladimir Putin would make a poor character reference on an SF-86) would probably add up to a big red X stamped across his form. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, would have to answer—while hooked up to a polygraph—whether in the past seven years she ever received a warning or reprimand for any “violation of a security policy.” An honest answer to this would not be promising, and I doubt that investigators would be swayed by the defense “…but after his reprimand, the director of the FBI didn’t indict me!”
You Vote for it
Regardless of their alleged misdeeds and possible disqualifiers, one of these two candidates is likely to be the next president. What does that mean with respect to sensitive material of the executive branch? Not a thing. Election to the nation’s highest office is the ultimate conferral of trust upon an American citizen by the body politic. Moreover, classification policy largely stems from executive orders, which originate from the president’s pen. He or she makes the rules for classification and the treatment of classified material. As commander-in-chief, all military secrets and secret-keepers serve at the whim of the president. If a president so chooses, he or she can more or less learn everything there is to know about anything there is to know.
For example, earlier this year, Hillary Clinton promised—barring national security concerns—that if elected president she would open the “X-files” related to UFO phenomena. That will be her prerogative as president, and no power in government can stop her from doing so. (Clinton is likely a believer in extraterrestrials, and is certainly interested in the subject in any event. Perhaps the most humanizing part of her political career came when she accurately corrected Jimmy Kimmel, who asked about these UFO records. “You know, there’s a new name,” she told him. “It’s ‘unexplained aerial phenomenon’… UAP. That’s the latest nomenclature.”)
Presidents, by virtue of their position, are practically incapable of violating clearance law. If a president wants to declassify something, he or she can more or less declassify it by fiat. This is not to say that presidents have carte blanche to spill whichever secret happens to come to mind during some press conference. The lives of our undercover intelligence officers abroad often hang in the balance, and a well-kept secret is the difference between an officer coming home and going to a gulag. Likewise, spy operations can take years, if not decades, to put into action. To reveal such operations on a whim would cripple the intelligence community and shoot the president in the foot; few people more than the president rely on the intelligence that results from such programs.
Presidential Access: Denied
So what is the sensitive material to which presidents are denied access? Individual census records, which aren’t classified per se. As the Census Bureau explains, “By law, the Census Bureau cannot share your answers with the IRS, FBI, Welfare, Immigration-or any other government agency. No court of law, not even the President of the United States, can find out your answers.” (This includes even the United States Secret Service. Your privacy in the matter trumps the safety and security of the president.) For the duration of 72 years, only you may request access to your personal census responses. On year 73, the files are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration, where they might be requested by journalists, historians, academics, and the general public for research and study. (Presidents do, however, have access to your individual tax returns, though he or she must first request it in writing and personally sign the request.)
Should the president have to submit to a security screening? Of course not. Aside from the basic unworkability of such a scheme, the total access of America’s secrets by the elected chief executive is an important check on the power of the nation’s military and entrenched secrecy apparatus. One hopes, however, that the awesome responsibility of safeguarding our secrets is fully imparted on whomever occupies the Oval Office. It perhaps falls to those around the president—the men and women who have been subjected to some of the the most rigorous security screenings in government—to suggest to the president the reason and urgency of the classification of any files that might be handled, and to fulfill humbly, and by example, the duty that comes in dealing with them.