House Democrats are sounding the alarm after an intelligence community watchdog testified behind closed doors Thursday about the handling of a whistleblower complaint that is said to relate to a conversation President Trump had with a foreign leader.
Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the committee would consider a series of remedies to compel acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire to share the complaint with Congress, which comes after Intelligence Community (IC) Inspector General Michael Atkinson said he found this whistleblower had brought forward a credible and “urgent concern.”
Schiff says the law requires Maguire to share the complaint with Congress no later than seven days after the director receives the allegations from the inspector general (IG).
While Schiff said they would wait to hear Maguire’s reasoning when he testifies before Congress next week about his handling of the complaint, he also telegraphed the Democrats will consider pulling at Congress’ purse strings or going to court to gain access to the allegations if the director does provide it voluntarily.
“We will look at whatever remedies we have, including when the director of national intelligence comes to Congress for authorization to reprogram funds for one purpose or another,” Schiff said after the meeting concluded Thursday, adding that they “will use whatever leverage” they can.
“We are exploring with the House general counsel what our options are. I would imagine if it comes down that we have to go to court to get this and that we will have a very good case to seek a temporary restraining order or a mandate or some urgent form of relief because the inspector general has said this cannot wait,” he said.
Members on both sides of the aisle said Atkinson did not wade into the nature of the complaint, but Democrats said he made it clear it was the result of a “series” of concerning episodes.
He didn’t say “anything about the allegations, where he was very protective,” said Intelligence Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). “But he did mention that this complaint was based on a series of events — ‘more than one’ to get the exact wordage right.”
The Washington Post first reported late Wednesday that a whistleblower filed a complaint with Atkinson after Trump made a troubling “promise” to a foreign leader during an interaction, but it is unclear who the foreign leader is and what the allegations were.
“We do know the [White House] is making some claim that a privilege may apply. Well that narrows the category who may be intervening here,” Schiff said. “We also know there are other institutions involved that are preventing us from getting the complaint.”
Quigley warned that Maguire’s failure to protect the whistleblower, by claiming that they are outside the process for whistleblowers to raise concerns in government agencies, could lead to a chilling effect and deter other whistleblowers from coming forward.
Intelligence Republicans, for the most part, were relatively mum on the topic, neither discounting Atkinson nor wading into whether the complaint concerned them.
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said Atkinson was “very careful” with his words, but he declined to get into the nature of the private discussions.
Members on both sides say they are watching to see what Maguire says next Thursday, when he testifies about the nature of the complaint that was brought forward by Atkinson.
Atkinson in a letter to the panel said that he disagreed with the decision by Maguire — which he made with the consultation of the Justice Department (DOJ) — that this whistleblower’s disclosure falls outside the whistleblower statute. Maguire made that determination because he said the allegations were not made “by a member of the Intelligence Community” and they did not “involve an intelligence activity under the DNI’s supervision.”
Discussions between foreign leaders is not considered an intelligence activity in and of itself, but that does not mean other intelligence related matters did not arise in these conversations.
It’s possible the complaint could be made through the channels of an inspector general with authority over a different part of the government.
Atkinson in the letter indicated that Maguire’s decisions have hurt his ability to protect the whistleblower and keep Congress apprised with information related to “significant problems and deficiencies relating to problems and activities within the responsibility and authority of the director of national intelligence,” as required under the law.
“[T]he differences are affecting what I view as my significant responsibilities toward the complainant, an employee, detailee, or contractor in the intelligence community who wants to disclose to Congress in an authorized and protected manner information that involves classified information that the Complainant believes in good faith is ‘with respect to an urgent concern,’” Atkinson wrote.
Democrats criticized DOJ’s involvement, saying it’s another sign that Attorney General William Barr’s agency is seeking to protect the president.
“This just reaffirmed to me that the Department of Justice is helping the president violate the rule of law,” Quigley said.
Barr has been a flashpoint among Democrats, who have accused him of shielding Trump with his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Schiff in a letter to Maguire earlier this week, prior to the Post’s report, speculated that the director had to be withholding the complaint because it involved Trump and possibly other senior White House officials.
“In violation of the statute’s explicit command, and in a stark break with the unbroken practice of previous Directors of National Intelligence, you have refused to transmit to the Committee the whistleblower disclosure, along with the IC IG’s determination that the information in the disclosure represents a credible urgent concern — even after the Committee’s formal request on September 10, 2019,” Schiff wrote in a letter to Maguire this week.
“So far as the Committee is aware, this marks the first time a Director of National Intelligence has ever sought to overrule the IC IG and conceal from Congress a whistleblower complaint,” he added.
Trump has also weighed in on the matter, defending his conduct and stating that he is aware that his phone calls with foreign leaders are not private.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!” the president tweeted earlier Thursday, while attacking the Post’s report as a “fake news story.”
“Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call,” he continued. “I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”