The nation’s top intelligence official will face lawmakers Thursday who intend to fiercely question him about his handling of a whistleblower complaint that could become the catalyst for Democrats’ impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Democrats have suggested that Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire broke the law at the direction of the White House when he withheld a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
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On Thursday, members of the House Intelligence Committee are expected to grill Maguire over his involvement in the matter, which prompted dozens of House Democrats to back an impeachment inquiry.
Just minutes before the hearing began, the committee released the whistleblower complaint, which alleged that White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. It also stated that officials were already talking with White House lawyers because of the “likelihood … that they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain.”
The complaint also says White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the phone call, and that the transcript was “loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
Maguire sat on the complaint even though a Trump-appointed internal watchdog deemed it “urgent” and credible. The watchdog even referred it to the Justice Department to examine whether campaign finance laws were broken. Now, Democrats are expediting consideration of articles of impeachment against Trump, citing evidence that he solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election.
On Wednesday, Trump sought to preempt the hearing by releasing notes of a July 25 call with Zelesnky — which came just days after the White House blocked military aid marked for Ukraine — in which he repeatedly asked for a “favor.” During the 30-minute call, Trump asked Zelensky to both examine unfounded conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election as well as to investigate Biden.
The release of the call notes seemed to compound Trump’s woes, however, emboldening Democrats to charge more quickly toward a possible impeachment.
Maguire’s appearance before the Intelligence Committee will mark House Democrats’ first high-profile hearing since Speaker Nancy Pelosi embraced formal impeachment proceedings earlier this week, as Democrats united in outrage over Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. Many now expect Trump’s actions toward Ukraine to form the core of articles of impeachment that could come to the House floor before the end of the year.
The panel received an unclassified version of the whistleblower complaint late Wednesday but has yet to view a report on the fuller investigation conducted by the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who sounded the alarm to the Intelligence Committee when Maguire withheld the complaint. Democrats are also concerned that the Justice Department intervened to block Maguire from sharing the complaint with Congress.
“I found the allegations deeply disturbing. I also found them very credible. I can understand why the [inspector general] found them credible,” Schiff told reporters after viewing the complaint in a classified setting. “It is an urgent matter. And there was simply no basis to keep this from the committee. The idea that DOJ would have intervened to prevent it from getting to Congress throws the leadership of that department further into ill-repute.”
Atkinson met with lawmakers behind closed doors last week but was unable to discuss the substance of the complaint because Maguire had not authorized him to do so.
Democrats, armed with the details of the complaint, intend to explore Maguire’s rationale for withholding it, including whether Maguire sought guidance from the Justice Department or if Attorney General William Barr or his deputies intervened to block the DNI from transmitting it to the congressional intelligence committees, as required by law.
Ahead of the hearing, Democratic members of the committee were pushing for a confrontational approach with Maguire, citing his initial refusal to turn over the whistleblower complaint and his deference to the Justice Department.
Some lawmakers were already pushing for Maguire to be held in contempt of Congress if he is evasive when he appears before the panel. But Schiff wouldn’t commit to punitive measures this week.
“We expect him to comply with the law, and if he doesn’t, we’ll figure out what the repercussions should be,” Schiff told POLITICO.
Three House committees that have already been investigating Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani could issue subpoenas as early as Thursday if the State Department does not turn over documents related to Giuliani’s alleged efforts to recruit the Ukrainian government’s help in launching an investigation targeting Biden and his son.
Together, both Maguire’s hearing and the State Department’s refusal to turn over those documents could prompt even more House Democrats to endorse the impeachment inquiry. At least 219 lawmakers already support it.
Schiff has also indicated he’s consulting with the House general counsel about how to convey any classified details that might be relevant to impeachment to his colleagues and possibly the public. It’s unclear whether the transmission of the unclassified complaint will be sufficient and Democrats said they must see Atkinson’s report as well, which they say contains the names of corroborating witnesses who confirmed the whistleblower’s account.