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Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony

Senators are reviving the fight over the whistleblower complaint at the center of the months-long impeachment effort against President Trump.

With Trump’s trial in the rearview mirror, the Senate Intelligence Committee is quietly shifting its attention back to its investigation into the complaint process after hitting pause on the inquiry as the impeachment effort consumed Washington. 

The probe will force senators to decide if, and how, they speak with the whistleblower — a controversial call that could test the bipartisan reputation the Intelligence panel has maintained even amid deeply partisan fights in Congress. 

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Asked by The Hill if he was willing to formally compel and subpoena the whistleblower to testify, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) didn’t rule out the possibility.

“I think you can rest assured that I’m prepared to do whatever we have to to interview the whistleblower,” Burr said. 

The renewed interest in speaking with the whistleblower comes after committee staff and lawyers for the individual hit a stalemate late last year over potential questioning.

Lawyers for the individual made offers at the time to both the House and Senate Intelligence committees that their client was willing to provide written answers under oath, but Burr rejected that offer. 

The North Carolina senator indicated no progress had been made since then in trying to reach a deal on testimony, and that while he hadn’t spoken recently with Mark Zaid, one of the whistleblower’s lawyers, that his plan is “an interview with committee staff.” 

The timeline for the panel’s investigation is unclear. It is still wrapping up two final reports on the probe into Russian election interference in the 2016 election. Asked about a timeline for trying to speak with the whistleblower, Burr said, “sooner rather than later.” 

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How the panel moves forward with trying to speak with the whistleblower could spark tensions among committee leadership — and even among Republicans as several senators have urged protection for the individual even as some of their colleagues have tried to out their alleged identity. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, noted that he and Burr have managed to keep the panel bipartisan despite the politically sensitive nature of their investigations, but sidestepped on if he was willing to compel the whistleblower. 

Warner also declined to weigh in on the public offer from the whistleblower’s attorney of providing answers to questions in writing and under oath. 

“Chairman Burr and I are working on how we’re going to go through our proceedings. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve managed for three and a half years to continue to put out broad, bipartisan reports,” Warner said. “I’m not going to get into any details on what we’re going to do. …We’ve been pretty close to the vest.”

A Democratic committee source said that protecting the whistleblower’s safety and anonymity “is a top priority.”

“We do not expect to be asked to cooperate with any effort that might endanger his or her safety,” the source said.

The prospect of calling the whistleblower to speak with the committee has been talked up most recently not by a member of the panel but by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president’s. 

“The Senate Intel Committee under Richard Burr has told us that we will call the whistleblower,” Graham said earlier this month during a Fox News interview. 

He added in a subsequent interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the “whistleblower episode needs to be investigated by Richard Burr” and in an interview with Fox News Radio that “the Intel Committee should be looking at whether or not the whistleblower had a bias.” 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Intelligence Committee and GOP leadership, said that he would support subpoenaing the whistleblower if Burr takes that path. 

“I’d be supportive of whatever it takes, including a subpoena,” Blunt told The Hill, adding that he also thought the committee “would probably be willing to do this in any reasonable way that the whistleblower would be willing to come forward.” 

But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), asked about Graham’s comments by the Bangor Daily News, appeared wary unless there was a “compelling case.”

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“I am very uncomfortable when I hear about investigations of a whistleblower,” Collins, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told the Maine publication. “We have a law that explicitly protects whistleblowers because they perform an invaluable role in exposing wrongdoing in government.”

The Intelligence Committee investigation, senators stress, isn’t about the identity of the whistleblower who helped spark the impeachment inquiry, but instead reviewing how the complaint was drafted, submitted and subsequently handled by the administration. The panel would also use the review to see if any legislation is needed to change or fill gaps in the process. 

The panel met last year with Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) Michael Atkinson, acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire and other DNI, Justice Department and CIA officials. 

“I think we should and will revisit the whistleblower issue, the ICIG and the role they played and even the Justice Department and the role they played,” Blunt told reporters earlier this month. “We may very well want to visit more with the DNI and his staff.” 

The whistleblower complaint focuses on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, alleging that Trump sought Ukraine’s help in the 2020 election by announcing an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden

The whistleblower, in the complaint, said that “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge” described the call, including that “the President used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests. Namely, he sought to pressure the Ukrainian leader to take actions to help the President’s 2020 reelection bid.”

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The whistleblower has emerged as a perennial target for Trump and his top allies since news of the complaint emerged last year, raising concerns among advocates and Democrats about the safety and legal protections of whistleblowers.

Tensions over the individual have also flared during — and after — the impeachment trial.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told The Hill last month that he stuck printed out copies of an article about the alleged whistleblower into the cloakroom cubbies of his GOP colleagues.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also grabbed headlines when Chief Justice John Roberts refused to read aloud a question he submitted during the trial that included the name of the alleged whistleblower. Paul subsequently gave a floor speech where he said the name of the individual alleged to be the whistleblower. 

Asked about a potential subpoena, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued that there were “unresolved questions.”

“I think there’s some unresolved questions about the whistleblower not their identity so much as their contact with HPSCI, HPSCI staff and … if that was a result of a collaborative process between Mr. Schiff’s staff and the whistleblower, I think that’s something important to know and something we may need to legislate on,” Cornyn said, using the acronym for the House Intelligence Committee.

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House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and his staff have said repeatedly that he did not have direct contact with the whistleblower and doesn’t know the individual’s name or the details of the complaint, which the whistleblower’s lawyers have said Schiff had no role in drafting. 

Democrats have also noted that whistleblowers routinely reach out to Intelligence committees, before being directed to an investigator general or attorney. 

“I don’t know who the whistleblower is. I haven’t met them or communicated with them in any way. The committee staff did not write the complaint or coach the whistleblower what to put in the complaint. The committee staff did not see the complaint before it was submitted to the inspector general,” Schiff told senators during the impeachment trial. 

“In short, the conspiracy theory,” he added, “that the whistleblower colluded with the Intel Committee staff to hatch an impeachment inquiry is a complete and total fiction.”

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