Intelligence Chief Defends Shrouding Whistleblower Complaint

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire takes his seat before testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Under fire about his role in keeping secret a whistleblower complaint that has fueled an impeachment probe against President Donald Trump, the acting director of U.S. intelligence told House lawmakers Wednesday that executive privilege concerns pushed him to seek the administration’s guidance.

Joseph Maguire emphasized repeatedly this morning in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that he took the steps he did because he believed the situation before him was unprecedented.

“I just thought it would be prudent,” said Maguire, who only assumed the intelligence post last month. “I had to be sure.”

Maguire appeared before the committee this morning shortly after its Democratic chairman, Representative Adam Schiff, released the whistleblower complaint that details a July phone call where Trump urged Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely opponent in the 2020 election, and Biden’s son.

Federal law required Maguire to rush the complaint to Congressional intelligence committees within a week — per statutes outlined under the Whistleblower Protection Act — when he received it from Michael Akinson, the intelligence community inspector general.

Despite conceding today that he determined immediately that the complaint contained urgent and credible concerns, Maguire said he instead brought the whistleblower’s letter to the Department of Justice to assuage his concerns about executive privilege.

Ultimately the White House determined that privilege did not apply, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff skewered Maguire this morning about why he opened that door, calling the official’s conduct “chilling.”

“Why did you do that? Why would you take the complaint to the people who are the subject of it? Do you think it is appropriate to go to the department run by the person who is the subject of the complaint?” Schiff asked.

As for whether he has ever discussed the complaint with Trump directly, Maguire director hedged. 

“I speak with him several times throughout the week,” the acting director said. “My conversations with the president are privileged, and it would be inappropriate for me to disclose them because it would destroy my relationship on any intelligence matters.”

Maguire also confirmed Thursday that he does not know the whistleblower’s identity and that it was never revealed to President Trump.

Throughout the hearing, Republicans frequently took umbrage to allegations in the complaint and by Democrats that the president acted illegally during the July call with Zelensky.

“The United States is allowed to solicit help from a foreign government in an ongoing criminal investigation, which is exactly what President Trump did,” said Representative John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican.

Multiple GOP legislators pushed this legal theory during the hearing, but Democrats noted that neither of the investigations Trump could have been referencing were open.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the 2016 election had long been closed by the time Trump made his request, as had Ukraine’s investigation into the owner of Burisma Holdings, the company that had Hunter Biden sitting on its board of directors.

Amid intense debate, Washington Democrat Representative Denny Heck struck at what he said was the central issue involved: the call was a national-security threat and, under guidance issued by FBI Director Christopher Wray in May, someone, somewhere, should have reported the call directly to the FBI.

 “Director Wray said any public official or member of any campaign should immediately report to the FBI any conversations with foreign actors about influencing or interfering with our elections,” Heck said. “Did the president do that? No. He didn’t. Should he have done it?”

Maguire agreed, saying the complaint was eventually referred to the FBI, but he was unsure by whom, and he failed to follow up before Thursday’s hearing.

Appearing exasperated, New York Representative Sean Maloney asked Maguire whether he genuinely believed it made sense to give veto power to two people implicated in the complaint.

“You understand, if this complaint went unchallenged, these allegations would have never made it to Congress?” Maloney said.

Maguire reiterated his faith in Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed intelligence community inspector general, who first raised the alarm.

“I believe he is trustworthy, but, sir, I got stuck on whether executive privilege was involved. And I’m sorry,” he said.

Immediately after the hearing concluded, Schiff exited chambers and told reporters he was “profoundly concerned” with the integrity of the existing whistleblower system.

“The conflict of interest is all too apparent, all too palpable, and it is a minor miracle that we got the complaint at all – and the transcript – at the end of the day,” Schiff said.

Trump reportedly watched the hearing from Air Force One. As Schiff spoke, the president tweeted: “Adam Schiff has zero credibility. Another fantasy to hurt the Republican Party!”

Schiff responded to reporters asking about the tweet.

“I’m always flattered when I’m attacked by someone of the president’s character,” he said.

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