The White House said Wednesday that it will not authorize any executive branch officials to disclose to Congress information about individual security clearances, a move that House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) called “the latest example of the president’s widespread and growing obstruction of Congress.”
The oversight panel has been examining the administration’s handling of security clearances and allegations that officials, including presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, were granted access to sensitive information over the objections of career staffers.
The investigation has led to an angry and escalating standoff between the House committee and the White House, which accused the panel in a letter Wednesday of “advancing a partisan political agenda.” The salvo is part of a broad refusal by the White House to cooperate with congressional inquiries.
On Wednesday, White House Counsel Pat A. Cipollone escalated the fight, writing to Cummings that his “committee appears to be putting public servants at risk” as it seeks information on how the White House granted security clearances to Kushner and others in the White House.
Cummings rejected Cipollone’s arguments and accused the administration of taking on the trappings of monarchy.
“The American people do not want a king in the White House — they want a President who adheres to the Constitution, who follows the law, and who recognizes Congress’ legitimate role as a check and balance on the Executive Branch,” he said in a statement responding to Cipollone’s letter.
The back-and-forth came as former White House personnel security director Carl Kline testified in a closed-door session Wednesday morning before the House panel.
The White House had originally instructed Kline, a career federal employee now working at the Defense Department, not to show up for an earlier subpoenaed deposition, leading Cummings to announce he would hold Kline in contempt for ignoring a compulsory Hill summons.
The committee sought Kline’s testimony after a whistleblower, one of his former subordinates at the White House, Tricia Newbold, alleged that the White House recklessly granted security clearances to individuals whom lower-level staffers had found unsuitable for the clearances.
Kline told lawmakers Wednesday that he was disappointed when he learned of Newbold’s complaints and thought that they were incorrect, according to people familiar with his testimony. He said he was never asked by anyone to change a security clearance designation.
Kline’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, said his client “remains proud of his lifetime of service, and stands by the decisions he made, independently and without political influence of any kind while serving in the White House.”
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) said Kline was “more forthcoming than I expected.” However, he said that Kline’s attorney and a representative of the White House Counsel’s Office objected to about 50 questions posed by the committee.
Lynch said that the White House was being “very protective of any disclosure regarding” the security clearance process for Kushner, national security adviser John Bolton, senior adviser Ivanka Trump and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Still, he said, he felt that Kline had shown a good-faith effort to cooperate and should not be held in contempt of Congress.
In a statement, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the ranking Republican on the committee, accused Democrats of using “just one witness, Trish Newbold, to pretend they did an investigation and to slander the White House by raising false alarms about our national security.”
“We’ve now heard from Mr. Kline and learned that neither the President, the chief of staff, nor any other White House official attempted to influence his decisions with respect to any security clearance application,” Jordan said.
It remains to be seen what other information the House panel will be able to obtain about the handling of security clearances. In his nine-page letter Wednesday, Cipollone laid out arguments against providing the underlying FBI investigation files, dismissing the committee’s citation of precedents as “misleading or irrelevant.”
His letter contended that a bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Cummings — had agreed in the past that “there is no legitimate need for access to such sensitive information about individuals.”
“The Committee’s demands fall well outside the realm of legitimate congressional information requests,” Cipollone’s letter said. “It has long been recognized on both sides of the political aisle that there is no legitimate need for access to such sensitive information about individuals.”
Cummings’s aides argued that the committee has in the past received security clearance information about individuals, including information about the Navy Yard shooter and Flynn.
“The lengths to which President Trump and his aides are going to keep this information from Congress raise grave concerns about what they are trying to hide — and why,” Cummings said in his statement.
“The Committee will consider its next step after consulting carefully with our members,” the statement added.
One constitutional scholar, Jonathan Turley, said Congress has legitimate grounds to inquire into security clearances granted to members of Trump’s family.
“The use of official powers or authority to benefit family members raises oversight concerns for Congress,” he said.