The nation’s top intelligence official battled with lawmakers on Thursday after acknowledging that he consulted with the White House counsel’s office after the intelligence community’s inspector general informed him of an “urgent” whistleblower complaint involving President Donald Trump.
The comments stunned members of the House Intelligence Committee, who grilled Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire over his handling of the complaint — particularly his refusal to immediately disclose it to Congress, as required by law when the inspector general deems it to be “urgent.”
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“I am aware that this is unprecedented,” Maguire said of a president’s involvement in such a whisteblower complaint. “This has never happened before. This is a unique situation.”
He also expressed open disagreement with Trump’s criticisms of the whistleblower as a partisan hack and a traitor.
“Absolutely not,” Maguire said when Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asked him if he believed the whistleblower was loyal to another country. “I think the whistleblower did the right thing.”
Democrats sought to use the hearing as a catalyst for Trump’s impeachment, two days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi embraced formal impeachment proceedings. The whistleblower complaint, which was made public just minutes before the hearing, alleges that Trump abused his office when he pressured Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and that White House officials sought to cover it up.
“It would be funny, if it weren’t such a graphic betrayal of the president’s oath of office,” Schiff said.
“But as it does represent a real betrayal — there is nothing the president says here that is in America’s interest — it is instead the most consequential form of tragedy, for it forces us to confront the remedy the founders provided for such a flagrant abuse of office, impeachment,” he added.
Maguire revealed that he first asked White House lawyers about the complaint because it involved presidential conversations with a foreign leader, which are typically subject to executive privilege. He said it “seemed prudent,” as a member of the executive branch, to discuss the matter with other agencies.
He then consulted with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which determined that the complaint did not meet the legal definition of “urgent” because Trump is not an employee of the intelligence community and therefore falls outside of his jurisdiction.
Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, disagreed with that determination and later informed the House Intelligence Committee of the complaint’s existence.
“It was urgent and important,” Maguire said. “But my job as the DNI was to comply with the Whistleblower Protection Act and adhere to the definition of urgent concern, which is a legal term.”
Maguire sat on the complaint even though Atkinson, 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.
The complaint alleges 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 repeatedly refused to say whether he had spoken directly to Trump about the whistleblower complaint.
Under questioning from Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Maguire said he couldn’t discuss his conversations with Trump. “My conversations with the president, because I’m the director of national intelligence, are privileged,” he said.
Maguire also said the White House never advised him to not provide the whistleblower complaint to Congress.
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 marked 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 Atkinson, the inspector general.
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.
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 is 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.