House Oversight votes to subpoena ex-White House official in security clearance probe

The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday voted to authorize a subpoena for a former White House official to testify as part of the panel’s investigation into the Trump administration’s security clearance process.

The committee voted 22-15 along party lines to approve a resolution authorizing a subpoena for former White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline to interview with the committee.

Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsMaryland postpones primary over coronavirus fears Maryland governor: 'Simply not enough supplies' on hand to tackle coronavirus Meadows joins White House facing reelection challenges MORE (D-Md.) telegraphed plans to subpoena Kline, who worked in the White House Personnel Security Office for the first two years of the Trump administration, in a letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone on Monday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Cummings has accused the White House of obstructing his panel’s wide-ranging investigation into the security clearances of Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Trump spars with reporter over Kushner's 'our stockpile' remark Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description MORE, and others, which the Democratic chairman launched in late January.

Tuesday’s vote comes after Cummings revealed that a current White House career official spoke privately with the committee about alleged failures in the current security clearance process.

The whistleblower, Tricia Newbold, told committee staff that Trump administration officials overruled her and other career officials in 25 instances in order to grant clearances to officials and contractors despite there being "disqualifying issues" in their backgrounds, such as foreign influence and concerning personal conduct, according to a 10-page memo released by Cummings on Monday.

The White House has blasted the security clearance investigation as "dangerous" and "shameful." 

Cummings described Newbold as a "brave young lady" at the outset of Tuesday’s business meeting, noting that she "came forward at great personal risk to warn Congress and the nation about the grave security risks she has been witnessing first hand over the past few years."

"I just want to emphasize that point. She came forward because the system at the White House is so dysfunctional that she believes Congress needs to intervene," Cummings said.

ADVERTISEMENT

"She is begging us to do something because she simply wants her government to work the way it is supposed to work. She gets it after 18 years," he continued.

Newbold worked under Kline and claims that he overruled her to issue a clearance to a senior White House official and also removed her from a case involving another senior White House official he later approved for a clearance. Newbold also claims that Kline retaliated against her for raising national security concerns about the clearance process, according to Cummings's memo.

Republicans have accused Cummings of cherry-picking information from her closed-door interview in order to smear the Trump White House, an accusation that Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court The relief bill and public broadcasting: A missed opportunity MORE (R-Ohio), the committee’s top Republican, reiterated Tuesday.

Republicans also took issue with the fact that they only found out about Newbold’s scheduled interview at 3:30 p.m. on the Friday afternoon before it occurred and during recess, when lawmakers are in their home districts. Newbold sat for a transcribed interview with Democratic and Republican committee staff on March 23, a Saturday.  

Jordan also took issue with Cummings issuing a public release based on just one witness’s closed-door testimony, though the chairman has claimed there are other whistleblowers on the matter.

"That’s how we’re going to run investigations in the Oversight Committee?" Jordan asked. "I’ve been on this committee for 10 years. I’ve never seen anything like this."

Cummings defended his decision, noting that Newbold was "scared to death" that officials would retaliate against her and feared Republicans would leak her scheduled appearance to the White House.

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Guidance on masks is coming Meadows sets up coronavirus hotline for members of Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: McConnell, Pelosi at odds over next relief bill MORE (R-N.C.), who, politics aside, is known to have a good relationship with Cummings, sought to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the committee, noting that protecting whistleblowers is a bipartisan priority.

But he also took issue with the late notice of the interview, saying he was unable to make it there in person as a result.

"I know we leak like a 40-year-old johnboat," Meadows said. "I get that. But at the same time, it would help for the people who take this extremely serious … I would just ask the courtesy."

Kline now works at the Defense Department and, according to Cummings’s letter, did not respond to letters from the committee requesting his voluntary appearance for an interview. Cummings later said Kline’s lawyer told the committee at the last minute that he would testify voluntarily, though only about general security clearance processes, not about specifics regarding certain officials or concerns about their applications, restrictions Cummings says are not sufficient.

"One the eve of the vote, they decided that suddenly they say they’re going to come in. But what they said to us, is they’re only going to come in and talk about process and procedures. We need more than that,” Cummings told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re trying to figure out what happened."

ADVERTISEMENT

Cline's attorney later released a statement reaffirming that he will appear before the panel. 

"Carl Kline wished to appear voluntarily before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and the White House approved his voluntary appearance. Yet, the Committee chose not to allow that. The subpoena issued today does not change Mr. Kline’s willingness to appear before the Committee to answer its legitimate questions truthfully. The facts will prove that he acted appropriately at all times," Robert Driscoll said in the statement.

Cummings's earlier letter to Cipollone stipulated that the committee plans to "depose Mr. Kline about the security clearance practices in place when he was at the White House, the treatment of specific security clearance adjudications during his tenure, and his interactions with the whistleblower."

Cummings has also signaled the committee would look to subpoena other current and former officials in the Personnel Security Office if the White House does not make them available for interviews or begin producing documents.

Reuters reported Monday that Kushner and Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans Bank executives sought guidance on small business loan program from Ivanka Trump: report MORE, the president's daughter, are among those who the Trump administration ordered security clearances against recommendations from career officials.

Cummings signaled Tuesday that he wants to question Kline about Kushner and Ivanka Trump's clearances but insisted he was not "zeroing in" on them.

ADVERTISEMENT

“What I do know is that he apparently got certain information that was contrary to the decision that was finally made to give them security clearances," Cummings told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "Once I know that, then I can figure out whether this was a decision on his part, something on the president’s part, or more significantly, why the decision was made. I just don’t know." 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Democrats of "acting in bad faith" in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, saying the administration had been cooperative with their requests by showing them documents and inviting them to sit down with officials to discuss the security clearance process.

"We’ve been cooperative on that front. But we’re not going to put the 3 million people who are full-time employees of the federal government that hold security clearances personal information at risk because Democrats want to pretend and play games instead of doing their jobs," Sanders said.

Cipollone also wrote to Cummings in early March noting that the "decision to grant or deny a security clearance is a discretionary function that belongs exclusively to the Executive Branch." He argued the committee is making "unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive demands."

Cummings, meanwhile, claims the White House has "obstructed" his probe and failed to provide a single document or interview requested by the committee.