Congress

Intel chief calls whistleblower complaint ‘unprecedented’

Acting director of national intelligence Maguire explains to House Intelligence Committee why he didn’t release complaint to Congress

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on the Capitol on Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The acting director of national intelligence on Thursday told the House Intelligence Committee that he did not forward to the panel a whistleblower complaint regarding President Donald Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Biden family, as he first needed clarification if the complaint was one that could be superseded by executive privilege.

Joseph Maguire detailed the process he undertook after receiving the complaint, saying his staff spent the last several weeks working with the White House legal counsel to determine whether the president’s executive privilege would prevent him from sending the complaint to Congress.

[Whistleblower describes White House trying to cover up Ukraine phone call]

“Until executive privilege is determined and cleared, I did not have the authority to be able to send that forward to the committee,” Maguire said in response to questions from committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-California. "I believe this case is unique and unprecedented.”

Maguire’s appearance before the committee comes one day after the White House released a summary of a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That phone call is the foundation of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry against Trump.

The complaint aligns with that summary of the call.

House Democrats said that document only confirmed that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, was justified in announcing a formal impeachment probe and focusing it on Trump’s request that Zelenskiy “do us a favor” by investigating 2020 Democratic front-runner Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden, for what Trump still claims was misconduct while the father was vice president.

[‘There is no rush to judgment:’ Pelosi says no deadline for impeachment inquiry conclusion]

In an exchange with Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes, Maguire refused to disclose if he had discussed the whistleblower complaint with Trump.

“My conversations with the president are privileged,” Maguire said.

Throughout the hearing, Maguire repeatedly declined to say if he spoke to the president about the complaint, but added that Trump had not asked him for the whistleblower’s identity. Maguire said that even he does not know the identity of the whistleblower, and Maguire and members of the panel were cautious to refer to the whistleblower as “he or she” throughout the hearing to avoid any such identification.

Trump has called the whistleblower’s account “another political hack job,” leading some on Capitol Hill to worry that the whistleblower could face blowback, despite legal protections that date back more than two decades.

Maguire, in response to questions from Alabama Democrat Terri A. Sewell and Schiff, assured the committee that the whistleblower would be able to appear before the committee without fear of retaliation or political pressure from the White House.

Earlier in the hearing, Maguire said that the anonymous official “did the right thing” and noted that his office is currently working with the whistleblower’s counsel, who may need to obtain a security clearance to represent his client, before the whistleblower appears before the committee.

Republicans on the panel, to different degrees, lamented that Thursday's hearing was political theater in service of impeaching Trump.

“Democrats, their media mouthpieces, and a cabal of leakers are ginning up a fake story,” Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, said in his opening statement. “The Democrats simply moved the goal posts and began claiming that there doesn’t need to be a quid pro quo for [Trump’s conversation with Zelenskiy] to serve as the basis for impeaching the president.”

While the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over articles of impeachment, by using the Zelenskiy call as the basis for impeachment Democrats will at least initially lean on the intelligence committee to build the case for impeaching the president.

Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner was troubled by the White House-released transcript of the Trump-Zelenskiy call, saying the conversation was “not okay” and “disappointing to the American people.”He added, hoewever, that he sees the call and the complaint as separate issues.

“We’ve seen this movie before, we’ve been here all year on litigating impeachment long before the July 25th conversation,” Turner said.

Republicans also rebuked Schiff’s opening remarks during which the chairman enunciated a fake dialogue based on the Trump-Zelenskiy transcript.

“We’ve been very good to your country, very good. No other country has done as much as we have but you know what I don't see much reciprocity here,” Schiff said as if he were Trump on the phone with Ukraine’s president. “I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you, though,” Schiff continued, as if he were on the phone in the White House. “I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it. … By the way, don’t call me again. I’ll call you when you’ve done what I’ve asked.”

New York Republican Elise Stefanik tweeted during the hearing, “It is disturbing and outrageous that Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff opens up a hearing of this importance with improvised fake dialogue between President Trump and President Zelenskyy. We should focus on the facts.”

Her Republican colleague from Ohio Brad Wenstrup said Schiff was intentionally unclear in his remarks.

“Unfortunately today many innocent Americans are going to turn on their TV and the media is only going to show that section of what the chairman had to say,” Wenstrup said.

At the end of the hearing, Nunes said Democrats should find a new venue to impeach Trump. “The Intelligence Committee is not an appropriate place to try articles of impeachment,” he said.

Following Nunes’ remarks, Schiff pressed Maguire, asking if he believes there should be an investigation into the whistleblower complaint.

Maguire repeatedly asserted that the burden of investigating the whistleblower complaint is now on Congress.

“I complied with my requirements to send you the documents,” Maguire said. “It is now up to the chair, the ranking member and this committee’s members to decide what to do with that information. I’m in no position to tell the chair or the committee to do an investigation or not do an investigation.”

That was not what Schiff wanted to hear.

“I find it remarkable that the director of national intelligence doesn’t think credible allegations of someone seeking foreign assistance in a U.S. election should be investigated,” Schiff said.

While Intelligence Committee members questioned Maguire, Pelosi, an ex officio member of the panel, confirmed that the focus of the impeachment inquiry is on the Ukraine allegation.

“Our consensus in our caucus is that we will proceed under the auspiciousness of where this matter is relevant and that is in the Intelligence Committee,” Pelosi said, noting the timeline of the impeachment inquiry “will spring from them.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.