Top Spy Defends Whistleblower At Center of Impeachment Inquiry

September 27, 2019by Del Quentin Wilber
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is sworn in prior to testifying before the House Select Committee on Intelligence in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill September 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The whistleblower who raised alarms about President Donald Trump pressing a foreign leader to investigate a Democratic candidate for president “did the right thing” and “followed the law every step of the way,” the nation’s top intelligence official told Congress on Thursday.

Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, called the whistleblower’s complaint “totally unprecedented” because it alleged that the president had endangered national security for personal gain over a period of several months.

But he appeared at odds with the White House, and most Republicans on the committee, by defending the still-unidentified intelligence official who wrote the nine-page complaint, and the inspector general who deemed it credible and urgent.

“I believe that the whistleblower and the inspector general have acted in good faith throughout. I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and followed the law,” Maguire said.

During a sometimes testy three-hour hearing, Maguire denied accusations from Democrats that he engaged in partisan politics when he initially suppressed the complaint, an action that helped spur impeachment proceedings against the president this week.

Maguire conceded that “there is an allegation of a cover-up” in the complaint, as Democrats alleged.

“But right now, all we have is an allegation — an allegation with secondhand information from a whistleblower. I have no knowledge on whether or not that is true and accurate statement,” he said.

Republicans defended Maguire’s actions, questioned the whistleblower’s motives and accused Democrats of using the issue to smear the president. Only one Republican suggested he was troubled by Trump’s apparent efforts to solicit Ukraine’s help in the 2020 election.

“This is not OK,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio. “That conversation is not OK, and I think it’s disappointing to the American public when they read this transcript.”

Maguire frustrated Democrats when he refused to say whether he had discussed the complaint with Trump, saying they speak regularly about intelligence and their conversations are privileged. But he said that Trump never asked him for the whistleblower’s name, and that he does not know the person’s identity.

At times Maguire, a retired Navy admiral, seemed uncertain, pointing out that he had been named to his post only six weeks ago and that the whistleblower’s complaint landed on his desk on the second day.

“I am the acting director of national intelligence, and I was still using Garmin to get to work,” he said, referring to a navigation device.

The original complaint, dated Aug. 12, was handed to the House and Senate intelligence committees Wednesday and released to the public Thursday.

It argues that Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” by trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political enemies, especially Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The author warns that Trump’s communications and actions “pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.” The complaint said it was based on accounts from more than half a dozen U.S. officials “in the course of official interagency business.”

The complaint initially went to Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson, a Trump appointee, referred the matter to the Justice Department to determine whether the president had violated the law. Prosecutors there decided there was insufficient evidence of a crime.

Maguire’s testimony followed the release Wednesday of a White House account of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the center of the whistleblower’s complaint.

During the 30-minute call, Trump repeatedly urged Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, who had been on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that had drawn scrutiny from the nation’s prosecutors. The request came after Zelenskiy asked for U.S. weapons to help fight Russia-backed separatists in a long-simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House intelligence panel, said Thursday that the White House summary of the call “reads like a classic organized crime shakedown.”

“We were presented with the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office,” Schiff said. “He betrayed his oath to defend our national security and betrayed his oath to defend our Constitution.”

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican, dismissed the allegations as insignificant. “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of an information warfare operation against the president,” he said.

Democrats criticized Maguire for not quickly turning over the complaint to the committee after it was filed last month. They argued he was required to do so under the law.

Maguire said he consulted with White House lawyers to determine whether executive privilege applied. As the White House weighed that issue, Maguire sought legal advice from the Justice Department about whether he was required to share it with Congress.

The Justice Department ruled that the complaint did not address an urgent concern or an intelligence matter, as required under the law, and therefore Maguire was not required to provide it to lawmakers. He added that he was never ordered to withhold the complaint and that it was left to him whether to release it.

When Trump released the White House account of his call with Zelenskiy on Wednesday, Maguire said, executive privilege no longer applied and he turned over the complaint that afternoon.


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