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Rep. Ro Khanna on WH Security Clearances, Ending Support for the Saudi War in Yemen, and Venezuela

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The House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed the director of White House personnel security after a whistleblower revealed senior Trump officials overturned 25 security clearance denials, despite “serious disqualifying issues.” We speak with California Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, who says, “Congressional oversight is not a choice—it’s the law.” We also speak to him about the latest congressional actions around Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with explosive revelations by a White House whistleblower who says senior Trump officials overturned at least 25 security clearance denials, despite, quote, “serious disqualifying issues.” In a memo released Monday, Tricia Newbold, who works in the White House Personnel Security Office, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee the individuals had been flagged by her office due to concerns about either blackmail or conflicts of interests or criminal conduct or foreign influence. Newbold explained why she decided to speak out during an interview she did with NBC.

TRICIA NEWBOLD: The protection of national security is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue. And we, as security professionals, owe it to make all our recommendations in the best interest of national security. … I am always concerned, but it’s important that we stand up to do the right thing, no matter what.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Newbold said she was subjected to retaliation for refusing to issue the security clearances, including a 14-day suspension without pay.

Well, on Tuesday, the House Oversight Committee voted along party lines to subpoena Newbold’s supervisor, Carl Kline, the former director of personnel security at the White House, who overruled her denials. The move is part of the committee’s investigation into the White House security clearance process. This is Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: It was not until yesterday—keep in mind, we started in January. It was not until yesterday, after the whistleblower’s claims were made public and less than 24 hours before today’s subpoena vote, that we finally received last-minute letters from Mr. Kline’s lawyer and the White House saying that he would voluntarily comply. But—and there is a big “but’ here—but there’s a catch: He will come in voluntarily, but he will not answer any of our questions about specific officials, about specific security violations or about specific security clearance adjudications. Instead, he will only talk about general policies. This is clearly not sufficient, and he knows that. And so I strongly urge my colleagues to support this subpoena.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House has previously come under fire for its handling of security clearances. Reports emerged earlier this year President Trump pressured his former chief of staff, General John Kelly, to grant clearances for his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both senior advisers, despite the objections of intelligence officials. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are reportedly included in the group of 25 individuals Newbold raised.

Following these most recent revelations, California congressmember, member of the Oversight Committee, Ro Khanna, tweeted, “Congressional oversight is not a choice—it’s the law. It’s long past time for this White House to start playing by the rules … and put our national security above personal politics.”

So, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Congressmember. Explain why you feel this is such a critical issue.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, this is a systematic assault on civil servants and expertise in our democracy. It’s unprecedented. Here you have a situation where the civil servant, Tricia Newbold, of great courage, has come forward and is saying that despite the career recommendations to deny security clearances, the president overruled that and, for personal reasons, gave these security clearances. And there are some serious allegations of why people were initially denied these clearances—drug use, potential foreign context, potential concerns of business dealings. So, the American public needs to know why career officials were overruled and these security clearances were granted.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congressman, Republican leaders, including one of your colleagues, Representative Jim Jordan, have said that the committee is cherry-picking the testimony that Newbold gave behind closed doors and that, after all, the president has the ultimate authority to grant security clearances. How do you respond to that?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, I would say two things. First, we’re not cherry-picking the testimony. And the Republican memo, which people should read for themselves, says, “Well, there may be four or five issues that are very serious, not all 25.” That’s hardly a defense. Even they are acknowledging that there are four or five very serious cases.

Second, the president doesn’t have absolute authority to do anything. I mean, for example, I’m not alleging this, but if there were allegations that the White House was selling security clearances, certainly that would be illegal. The president does have discretion, but he does not have the authority to have misconduct. And what we need to investigate here is: Was there misconduct? Were people granted security clearances because of political preferences or nepotism? And were the rules not followed?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Tuesday’s hearing. This is Democratic congressmember from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: People are—you know, folks are suggesting that we are conducting foreign relations with folks with security clearances via WhatsApp. I mean, every day that we go on without getting to the bottom of this matter is a day that we are putting hundreds, if not potentially thousands, of Americans at risk. I mean, really, what is next? Putting nuclear codes in Instagram DMs? This is ridiculous! We need to get to the bottom of this. And in order to do that, we have to issue subpoenas, because people in this administration are not cooperating.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, your colleague on the Oversight Committee. Also, the issue of retaliation against Tricia Newbold, the staffer at the White House who has blown the whistle on these at least, it looks like, 25 people who she recommended not get that security clearance, and then it went on up from there, and that was overturned. She now is on a, what, 14-day suspension. She suffers from a kind of dwarfism, and she said files were put out of her reach and that she was discriminated against in various ways.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, she has shown incredible courage. I mean, imagine what she’s facing. Here you have a president who is apt to tweet out about any person who he disagrees with or who feels is a threat to his presidency. And despite that, despite potential Republicans attacking her or media attacking her, she has come forward, in a very patriotic way, to say that the country really needs to understand what went on. I will give credit to a couple of Republican colleagues on the Oversight Committee who yesterday assured her that they would protect her ability to come forward and would make sure that there was not any public retaliation, because what she’s done has really shown courage.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about the question of the Mueller report, the vote that’s about to take place around releasing the full Mueller report. What is your assessment of what has been released so far? There are a lot of questions about the continued assertions of congressmembers that there is clear collusion, as opposed to corruption. What do you feel Barr has released and what he should have the power to hold back and whether you should see the whole report? What kind of power does Congress have? Both questions.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, first of all, Congress has already voted on this. We voted 420 to 0 to release the full report. That is my view of what Mueller intended. He didn’t intend for Barr to make an interpretation and determination for the American public of a 2-year investigation. He was very careful. He was very methodical. He spent two years collecting all the evidence. He wanted that evidence transmitted to Congress and to the American people for folks to decide. And this has been a very cynical attempt by the administration to allow Bill Barr to define the terms of debate and to issue opinions without letting anyone else see it.

Now, on the merits of the report itself, I think it’s important to go to a few points. First, it is clear that the Russians intervened in our election. That should be the headline, that the Russians were trying to hack our—the DNC’s emails, that they were manipulating social media to suppress the vote, that they wanted Trump to win. And there should be outrage, frankly, in the country about that interference, and a question of how we can deal with that interference.

Second, on the obstruction of justice, Mueller has concluded that he can’t exonerate the president, that there are numerous issues about the president’s conduct that are questionable. The Congress needs to have a debate about that and a debate about the president’s conduct and whether it was appropriate or not. So, Bill Barr has usurped the conversation, and the American people need to take that conversation back by demanding the full release of the report.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congressman, I wanted to turn to another topic, a foreign policy issue that you’ve been very involved in. You’ve been in the forefront of pushing a War Powers Resolution in Congress related to stopping U.S. backing for the Saudi war in Yemen, and a version of that bill has passed in both the House and in the Senate. What’s your expectation of what President Trump will do? Or do you have any indication from the White House?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s passed the House and the Senate, but we need to repass it in the House this week. And unfortunately, the Republicans are trying to play games. They may try to weaponize anti-Semitism to attach a measure to the War Powers Resolution to try to prevent it from going to the president’s desk. And we have been working very, very hard—I give, actually, Majority Leader Hoyer credit—to make sure that they don’t attach some resolution to defeat the Yemen War Powers Resolution from going to the president’s desk. I’m actually hopeful that the president may sign this. I mean, it has bipartisan support, with people like Senator Rand Paul and Senator Lee.

What we’re talking about here is a humanitarian catastrophe. Fourteen million Yemenis may face famine. I was just with Martin Griffiths, who’s the envoy to the area. He said if we don’t act in the next few months for the Saudis to lift the blockade and get food and medicine there, there could be a real humanitarian catastrophe, where the famine becomes irreversible. I am so passionate about this, because in 1943, when my grandfather was in jail in India, there was a famine of 3 million people in West Bengal, and that was because of British indifference, because they didn’t do anything to help those folks in West Bengal. We should not repeat that mistake today. We have to act. The world has to act. It’s really not a partisan issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And on the issue of Venezuela, you were among those—you sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning against U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. Now, while there is not military intervention, the country is suffering a series of blackouts. The people who are being plunged into poverty are increasing. The entire country obviously is totally disrupted. The president, Maduro, says the U.S. is working with Guaidó to sabotage the country even further than the very draconian sanctions. Where do you feel the U.S.—do you feel—what have you told the Trump administration you want to see happen there?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, our intervention is not making issues any better. What I had told the Trump administration is that they should take up the pope in his offer, or Mexico or Uruguay, to have a mediated settlement. Look, I am not an apologist for Maduro. Some of his actions have been reprehensible. I mean, this idea of going after Guaidó and possibly putting him in jail is a violation of human rights, or the idea that Guaidó shouldn’t be in office. But the reality is, when the United States intervenes, when Mike Pence is calling Guaidó and propping him up, that’s actually playing into Maduro’s hands, because Maduro uses that to rile up his base.

And a far more thoughtful policy would be to call out the human rights violations, to call out Maduro for violations, but to say that we are going to rely on the pope or on Mexico and Uruguay to call for new elections. I was just down with President Carter. He said that the previous elections, they didn’t let the Carter Center in. We should have new elections. But there has to be credible folks, with credibility in the international community and regional credibility, to help mediate that. Our intervention isn’t making that any more likely.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Ro Khanna is Democratic congressmember from California, member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at this historic win in Chicago and the role of movements in the mayoral race. Then we’ll look at Mexico. Stay with us.

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