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House panel moves to hold former White House official in contempt after he obeys Trump administration’s instruction not to testify

The Trump administration is under scrutiny for bucking the established security clearance procedure once again - this time, for 25 administration officials. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The House Oversight Committee moved Tuesday to hold a former White House personnel security director in contempt of Congress for failing to appear at a hearing investigating alleged lapses in White House security clearance procedures.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he would consult with the House counsel and members of the panel about scheduling a vote on contempt for former White House personnel security director Carl Kline. At the instruction of the White House, Kline failed to show up for scheduled testimony on security clearances.

The move marks a dramatic escalation of tensions between Congress and the Trump White House, which is increasingly resisting requests for information from Capitol Hill.

“The White House and Mr. Kline now stand in open defiance of a duly authorized congressional subpoena with no assertion of any privilege of any kind by President Trump,” Cummings said in a statement. “Based on these actions, it appears that the President believes that the Constitution does not apply to his White House, that he may order officials at will to violate their legal obligations, and that he may obstruct attempts by Congress to conduct oversight.”

The standoff comes as the Trump administration pushes back against congressional inquiries targeting the White House, which have proliferated since Democrats took control of the House in January.

White House deputy counsel Michael M. Purpura wrote a letter Monday instructing Kline, who now works at the Defense Department, not to show up for a scheduled deposition before the committee Tuesday.

In a letter to Kline’s lawyer obtained by The Washington Post, Purpura wrote that a committee subpoena asking Kline to appear “unconstitutionally encroaches on fundamental executive branch interests.”

In a separate letter Monday, Kline's attorney, Robert Driscoll, told the panel that his client would adhere to the White House recommendation.

“With two masters from two equal branches of government, we will follow the instructions of the one that employs him,” Driscoll wrote in the letter addressed to Cummings.

On Tuesday, Driscoll said that he and his client “take seriously” both the committee’s concerns and the direction of the White House.

“We will continue to review the proceedings and make the best judgments we can," he said.

Cummings signed a subpoena this month for Kline to appear Tuesday.

That subpoena followed testimony from a White House personnel security whistleblower, Tricia Newbold, who alleged that the White House had been recklessly granting security clearances to individuals whom lower-level administration personnel staff had found unworthy.

Former White House official accused in security clearance dispute to face House committee

Newbold, who processed security clearances under Kline at the White House for the first two years of the administration, told Cummings’s panel that more than two dozen denials for security clearances had been overturned during the Trump administration. She said that Congress was her “last hope” for addressing what she considered to be improper conduct that left the nation’s secrets exposed.

Newbold, an 18-year veteran of the security clearance process who has served under Republican and Democratic presidents, said she warned her superiors that clearances “were not always adjudicated in the best interest of national security” — and that she faced retaliation for doing so.

Among those whose clearances she questioned was presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who President Trump ultimately demanded be granted a permanent top-secret clearance, despite the concerns of intelligence officials.

Kushner was identified only as “Senior White House Official 1” in committee documents released during the first week in April following Newbold's testimony. In her deposition, Newbold said her staff determined that Official 1 had too many “significant disqualifying factors” to receive a clearance.

However, that recommendation was overruled by Kline, the career official who then headed the office, according to Newbold’s interview with committee staff.

While Kushner’s security clearance was pending, he held an interim top-secret clearance that at one point also gave him access to some of the government’s most sensitive materials, including the president’s daily intelligence brief, The Washington Post has reported.

Last February, his clearance was reduced to “secret” as part of an effort by then-chief of staff John F. Kelly to limit the number of White House officials without permanent clearances who had access to highly classified material.

Trump then personally directed Kelly to give Kushner a top-secret clearance — a move that made Kelly so uncomfortable that he documented the request in writing, according to people familiar with the situation.

The letters from the White House and Kline’s lawyer came late Monday, following a day that began with another confrontation with Congress.

Earlier Monday, the Trump Organization filed a lawsuit to prevent an accounting firm from complying with a committee subpoena for eight years’ worth of Trump’s financial records.

In a statement issued this month, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, accused Cummings of politicizing the security clearance issue, one that he said should be bipartisan.

“Chairman Cummings’ investigation is not about restoring integrity to the security clearance process, it is an excuse to go fishing through the personal files of dedicated public servants,” Jordan said in the statement.

Republicans said Cummings “cherry-picked” excerpts of the closed-door interview with Newbold, whom they characterized as a disgruntled employee with limited knowledge of how security clearance decisions are made.

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.