Congress is about to have its first constitutional showdown with the Trump administration

"It appears that the President believes that the Constitution does not apply to his White House."

House committee threatens contempt after White House rejects subpoena over security clearances. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House committee threatens contempt after White House rejects subpoena over security clearances. (PHOTO CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a blistering statement Tuesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) threatened contempt proceedings for former White House employee Carl Kline, who had been subpoenaed over his handling of security clearances.

The Trump administration has instructed Kline not to comply with the committee’s subpoena, and Kline, who now works for the Defense Department, agreed not to appear for his scheduled deposition Tuesday morning.

“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. “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.”

Earlier this year, whistleblower Tricia Newbold testified to the committee that the current administration had overturned at least 25 security clearance denials since the start of President Donald Trump’s tenure — an unprecedented national security vulnerability. Newbold accused Kline both of participating in these reversals and retaliating against her when she objected to them. Kline not only placed files where Newbold, who has a rare form of dwarfism, could not reach them, but later temporarily suspended her without pay.


“Mr. Kline stands accused of retaliating against a whistleblower who reported serious allegations of abuse to Congress,” Cummings said in his statement. “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.”

As The Washington Post reported earlier Tuesday, White House deputy counsel Michael Purpura had written to Kline asking him not to report to the committee, claiming that the subpoena “unconstitutionally encroaches on fundamental executive branch interests.” Kline’s own attorney, Robert Driscoll, then wrote to the committee explaining he would refuse to testify. “With two masters from two equal branches of government, we will follow the instructions of the one that employs him,” Driscoll wrote.

Cummings rejected the White House’s excuses Tuesday.

“Instead of making any privilege assertion, the White House now seeks to challenge the Committee’s authority to conduct depositions under a rule that has been used by Republican and Democratic Chairmen for years — and that was just adopted again this past January with unanimous support from all Committee Members,” he wrote.

“The American people want transparency and accountability from this Administration, but we can’t provide that if we don’t have the information we need.”


Cummings said that he intends to consult with House Counsel and other members of the Oversight Committee to schedule a vote on holding Kline in contempt for failure to comply with a subpoena. “I hope that Mr. Kline, in close consultation with his personal attorney, will carefully review his legal obligations, reconsider his refusal to appear, and begin cooperating with the Committee’s investigation,” he said.

ThinkProgress inquired with members of the committee Tuesday, both Democrat and Republican, as to whether they thought a contempt proceeding was important to maintaining the committee’s authority, but did not immediately hear back.

Kline’s refusal to testify — and the White House’s role in blocking him from complying with the subpoena — constitutes one of the first breaking points in which Trump has openly defied the legal authority of House Democrats to investigate his administration. It could present a serious endurance test for the constitutional checks and balances that are supposed to ensure the legislative and executive branches are equal in power.

Trump likewise faces a deadline Tuesday to comply with a House Ways and Means subpoena to turn over several years of his tax returns. The law clearly requires Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to comply with the request, but the administration has been insistent that it would “never” hand over the documents.

White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley doubled down on this refusal in a Fox News interview Tuesday morning. “It has already been litigated in the court of public opinion and the election. The president won fairly and squarely,” Gidley claimed. “He is the president and no one cares about ridiculous charges about tax returns and all types of other things Democrats are doubling down on today.”

Several Democratic lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee have already publicly said they plan to fight to make sure the White House is obeying the law. “If they do not comply with that [subpoena], a legal battle will begin to defend the right of oversight in Congress,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) told Reuters.