The White House indicated late Friday it would make former security clearance boss Carl Kline available to interview with the House Oversight Committee on May 1, but only if his testimony is limited to “policies and practices” of the security clearance process, a restriction that Democrats have previously complained is too narrow.
“[W]e understand the scope of the interview will be limited to White House personnel security policies and practices, consistent with our prior offers for Mr. Kline’s voluntary cooperation with the Committee,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in the letter to the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan.
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The offer, pitched in response to a request from Jordan to avert an escalating confrontation between the White House and Congress, may not satisfy Democratic demands for testimony on some of the most controversial security clearance decisions made by the Trump White House. But it’s the first move toward accommodation by an administration that has openly rejected submitting to most Democratic oversight requests. In addition, if lawmakers opt to interview Kline and find his answers overly restricted, the committee could still seek to depose him, according to a source familiar with the process.
Republicans on the panel say Cummings’ decision to subpoena Kline created an unnecessary conflict with the White House over his testimony and ultimately stymied a voluntary interview that would have been the first step in the committee’s information-gathering efforts. “We are pleased that Mr. Kline is coming in for an interview that we are hopeful will provide any necessary answers related to the security clearance process,” said a Republican committee source.
Democrats have been demanding Kline’s testimony following a whistleblower’s complaint that Kline overruled career staffers to approve high-level security clearances for top White House personnel, even though their applications had been flagged as national security risks. But until late Friday, the White House had ordered Kline to refuse to appear, and Kline’s attorney Robert Driscoll indicated that Kline intended to defer to his employer’s wishes.
Cummings aides did not respond to requests for comment but it’s unlikely he’ll accept the terms offered by the White House. In addition to restricting Kline’s testimony to general “policies and practices” of the security clearance office, Cipollone also indicated he expected to have a lawyer on his team present in the room, a demand that Democrats have not agreed to and that they’ve argued conflicts with the committee’s past practice.
It’s not clear Democrats have reviewed the letters between Cipollone and Jordan, who earlier in the day said he hoped to avert a contempt vote and urged the White House to make Kline available for a voluntary interview on April 30 or May 1. The White House agreed to the May 1 appearance, which coincides with Attorney General William Barr’s first Capitol Hill testimony since he released a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Democrats have raised concerns about the security clearance process at the White House for two years. They’re particularly interested in how Trump’s son in law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, obtained a clearance — especially following recent reports that Trump intervened to overrule recommendations that Kushner not be granted a high-level clearance.
Cummings recently made public testimony from a whistleblower — an 18-year employee of the security clearance office who worked under Kline — who claimed that Kline had a direct role in overturning her decisions. She indicated that about two dozen security clearance decisions — including those for a handful of high-level White House officials — were overruled by political appointees.
The White House’s initial decision to block Kline’s testimony came as the president has vowed to oppose every subpoena issued by the Democrat-controlled House. Jordan’s effort to broker a less-confrontational approach has so far been publicly ignored by Democrats. Jordan indicated in his letter to the White House that he intended to “avoid unnecessary conflict between Congress and the Executive Branch” and accused Cummings of orchestrating “inter-branch confrontation.”
Cummings has rejected complaints about his handling of the process, calling Republican criticism disingenuous and urging Kline to testify or face potential legal consequences.
“Mr. Kline’s attorney is trying to cast him as caught in the middle of a dispute between the Committee and the White House, asserting that Mr. Kline is ‘not a party in interest.’ That is not correct,” Cummings said in a statement Tuesday. “Mr. Kline stands accused of retaliating against a whistleblower who reported serious allegations of abuse to Congress. As the Committee with primary jurisdiction over the Whistleblower Protection Act, we take extremely seriously our responsibility to investigate these allegations and to protect the rights of all whistleblowers who come before Congress.”