Showdown between WH, GOP lawmakers looms over Rob Porter scandal

Senior White House officials would not commit Friday to honoring key deadlines set by powerful congressional Republicans to hand over information about security clearance procedures, potentially setting up a showdown between the President and lawmakers in his own party.

The White House is facing a March 13 deadline to respond to questions from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley about how the administration handles interim security clearances and what procedures exist to ensure someone can’t operate indefinitely on a temporary clearance. And the White House ignored demands by another committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, to detail the circumstances around the former senior White House aide Rob Porter.

The questions stem from how the White House handled clearance issues for Porter, who remained on a temporary clearance for over a year despite the fact that two women told the FBI that he had been physically abusive towards them. The allegations, which Porter has denied, prevented him from obtaining a full clearance while working as President Donald Trump’s staff secretary. Porter resigned from the White House last month.

A series of White House officials, including press secretary Sarah Sanders, deputy press secretary Raj Shah and legislative affairs director Marc Short, didn’t answer whether they planned to respond to the questions, thereby raising the possibility that the White House will ignore Grassley and continue to avoid answering Gowdy’s queries. The lack of responsiveness appears to be a sign that the White House is unwilling to provide more details about their handling of the Porter situation over fears that doing so could escalate the scandal.

New policies

White House chief of staff John Kelly outlined new policies three weeks ago for how the administration would handle temporary security clearances, a policy change that impacted the standing of dozens of White House officials, including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Questions remain about how Kelly’s new guidelines could impact the future employment of Trump administration staffers who are unable to obtain a full security clearance.

The possibility of a standoff with lawmakers grew Thursday when the White House ignored a bipartisan congressional inquiry from the House Oversight Committee regarding documents about the Porter scandal. Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, sent the White House a list of questions in February, asking the administration to respond by last week.

Instead, Gowdy received a brief letter Thursday night from Short that declined to provide a detailed timeline of the Porter background check by the FBI, when White House officials became aware of his problems or what they did about it. The letter pointed to the changes chief of staff John Kelly made in the wake of the scandal and touted a working group aimed at improving the clearance process.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, slammed the letter as “unacceptable — under any reasonable standard” and demanded that Gowdy subpoena the White House for answers. Gowdy’s office declined to comment on the subpoena request.

On Wednesday, Gowdy would not rule out issuing a subpoena to the White House.

“That’s always been my mantra: If we are making progress, and I think it’s in good faith, the deadlines can be extended,” Gowdy told CNN in an interview. “It’s only when they say ‘no,’ and it’s not in good faith do you have to resort to other measures.”

It is also unclear whether Grassley would issue a subpoena if the White House ignores his request as they did with the Gowdy inquiry. In his more than three decades in the Senate, the Iowa Republican has shown he won’t put up with being ignored and has faulted Trump at times. Still, Grassley has shown a willingness to work with the Trump White House.

GOP demands

The White House has long ignored many requests from Democrats for information on a wide range of topics, given they are in the minority and don’t have subpoena power without GOP support. But the Porter scandal has led to a rare development: Demands from powerful GOP committee chairmen for documents.

The brief letter from Short surprised Hill sources because Gowdy and the White House had been engaged in what both sides said were productive discussions over the past week. Gowdy had extended a February 28 deadline, and told CNN there was a “good-faith” effort by the White House to provide the documents.

“It’s an ongoing conversation,” he said of his talks with the White House at the time. “I want the information and not the drama. … If there’s a good-faith effort to provide it, and they need more time – that’s what I want to see: the information.”

Asked if he would consider a subpoena, Gowdy said: “Not as long as there are productive conversations. … How is a subpoena going to speed things up?”

But after Short’s terse letter to the committee Thursday night, it’s unclear whether that’s enough to push Gowdy to issue a subpoena to the White House, something he has been unwilling to do on a range of other matters despite repeated requests by Cummings. The South Carolina Republican has yet to issue a subpoena since taking over as chairman in June 2017.

The Porter scandal has dogged the White House for more than a month and top White House officials remain frustrated that questions about Porter persist, long after the aide has left. The resistance to answering lawmaker questions about Porter could be an attempt to prevent the story from continuing to attract attention.

But questions surrounding Porter have persisted because senior White House aides have been unable to explain how one of the President’s top aides was allowed to work in the White House for so long without a full clearance.

Kelly defiantly tried to explain the Porter situation during a briefing with reporters earlier this month, but instead he continued to misrepresent his handling of the controversy and mostly defended his own conduct by insisting that he never considered resigning over issue.