The Trump administration is denying congressional Democrats access to information regarding the background check and security clearance process for White House staff, in the latest step to push back on investigations emanating from Capitol Hill.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone penned a letter explaining the decision Wednesday to House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is leading a probe into potential misconduct concerning security clearances for White House officials.
"[T]he Administration respects the authority of Congress to conduct legitimate oversight and will work with the Committee through the constitutionally mandated accommodation process to provide the Committee with information it can properly seek," he wrote. "However, to be clear, no employee of the Executive Branch is or has been authorized to disclose to the Committee information about individual security clearance files or background investigations."
Cipollone, warning that the committee's actions could discourage individuals from pursuing careers in government, called it "highly improper for the Committee to induce or encourage the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information in order to launch public political attacks on individuals as part of advancing a partisan political agenda.”
He added: “I respectfully urge the Committee to cease these improper methods of obtaining information to which it is not legally entitled.”
Cipollone said the White House will continue to work with the committee and provide materials that are properly requested.
“The Committee is not a law enforcement agency, and it is improper for it to be targeting and intimidating individual Americans under the guise of oversight,” Cipollone wrote. “Similarly, Congress does not have power to target individuals for the sake of ‘exposing’ alleged derogatory information to the public.”
Cipollone claimed that the committee’s request for individual security clearance files and information “has no legitimate legislative purpose.”
The White House also argued that the committee has requested documents that are “not subject to disclosure,” including requests that cover “communications to and from the President,” which are “at the heart of executive privilege,” and other “protected” communications. Cipollone further said the materials from individual security clearance files consist of information gathered by the FBI.
“Releasing information prepared by the FBI in connection with a security clearance review would undermine the investigative process, expose sensitive information that could jeopardize the FBI's ability to conduct future investigations, and raise serious separation of powers concerns,” he wrote.
Cipollone’s letter comes after the president warned congressional Democrats he would fight “all” subpoenas issued to current and former administration officials as part of the Democrats’ sweeping Trump-focused investigations.
Cummings blasted the White House on Wednesday, claiming the letter "ignores past precedent," and said it was an example of Trump's "obstruction."
“Today’s letter from the White House refusing to produce any security clearance documents requested by the Committee is the latest example of the President’s widespread and growing obstruction of Congress," Cummings said in a statement to Fox News. “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 added: “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. The Committee will consider its next step after consulting carefully with our Members."
And the letter comes shortly before ex-White House security official Carl Kline is slated to appear before the committee for an interview related to his activities in his former position. The committee subpoenaed Kline earlier this month, but the White House blocked Kline from complying.
Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, then warned the White House that if they did not provide Kline for an interview, Cummings would likely begin contempt proceedings against him. Cummings indeed fired off a stern warning to Kline around that time.
"Your refusal to participate in a deposition last Tuesday pursuant to a duly authorized subpoena from this Committee is a very serious matter that places you in significant legal jeopardy," Cummings wrote in a letter made public Sunday. "Your actions are particularly egregious because you did not even appear before the Committee as the subpoena directed. I understand that the White House ordered you not to appear, but that is not a valid legal reason to defy a congressional subpoena. The President asserted no Constitutional privilege and has not relieved you of the legal requirement the subpoena imposed."
The White House and Kline ultimately agreed to the new interview format.
Kline’s subpoena was issued as part of the committee’s investigation into security clearances issued to senior Trump administration officials, including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former White House aide Rob Porter.
The probe intensified after Tricia Newbold, an 18-year government employee who oversaw the issuance of clearances for some senior White House aides, revealed that she compiled a list of at least 25 officials who were initially denied security clearances last year, but had senior officials overrule those denials.
Lawyers for Trump last week also sued the oversight committee to block subpoenas for the president’s financial records.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.