The acting director of national intelligence defended his handling of a secret whistleblower complaint involving President Donald Trump's communication with Ukraine, telling the House Intelligence Committee he initially withheld the document from Congress because of concerns over "executive privilege."
Joseph Maguire told lawmakers he upheld his "responsibility to follow the law every step of the way" as he reviewed an intelligence community whistleblower's complaint at the center of Democrats' impeachment probe of the president.
Maguire said he could not legally release the complaint because of "executive privilege," which he says is a privilege he "did not have the authority to waive."
"I am not familiar with any prior instances where a whistleblower complaint touched on such complicated and sensitive issues, including executive privilege. I believe that this matter is unprecedented," Maguire said.
Maguire's testimony Thursday morning began shortly after the House Intelligence Committee released a redacted version of the complaint. Maguire then went behind closed doors to speak to the Senate's intelligence committee.
The 9-page complaint alleges the president abused the power of his office to "solicit interference from a foreign country" in next year's U.S. election and the White House then tried to "lock down" the information to cover it up.
The whistleblower complaint is in part related to a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump prodded Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The complaint showed the whistleblower learned details of the call from White House officials.
Maguire acknowledged that the complaint alleged serious wrongdoing by the president but stopped short of characterizing the conduct described in the document and in White House notes from the call released Wednesday.
"I am not partisan and I am not political," he said.
According to the complaint, the officials told the whistleblower they were "directed" by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.
"This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call," the report said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday fully endorsed an impeachment investigation in light of the Ukraine revelations. She said Thursday that the complaint showed Trump was engaged in a cover-up.
The unidentified whistleblower first submitted a complaint to Michael Atkinson, the U.S. government's intelligence inspector general, in August. The complaint was supposed to be turned over to Congress, as required by law, but Maguire withheld it from lawmakers, citing issues of presidential privilege and saying the complaint did not deal with an "urgent concern." Atkinson disagreed but said his hands were tied.
Schiff, the chairman of the committee, pressed Maguire on why he went to the White House and the Justice Department about the complaint when both Trump and Attorney General William Barr are implicated in the document.
"I have to work with what I've got," Maguire said.
The notes on the call released by the White House on Wednesday showed that Trump prodded Zelenskiy to work with the U.S. attorney general and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to investigate Biden.
In the call, Trump seemingly equates Barr with Giuliani, who has no role in the administration and, in rambling television appearances, is one of Trump's most vocal defenders. The complaint also focuses on Giuliani, alleging that multiple U.S. officials reported the former mayor traveled to Madrid one week after the call to meet with one of Zelenskiy's advisers, and that the meeting was characterized as a follow-up to the telephone conversation between the two leaders.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that Barr must step aside from the Ukraine investigation now that the transcript shows that Trump "dragged the Attorney General into this mess."
Barr saw no need to recuse himself after the Justice Department was made aware of a whistleblower's complaint about the conversation and other matters.
Those close to the attorney general argue there would have been no reason for him to recuse, or even consult ethics officials, because he was unaware of the president's conversation at the time it occurred and was not involved in any discussion of investigating Biden and his son Hunter.
In a statement, the Justice Department sought to distance Barr from the situation, insisting that the attorney general was unaware the president offered him up to investigate one of the president's political rivals.
Zelenskiy said his comments in the conversation with Trump shouldn't have been publicly released, and he played down Ukraine's investigation of Biden, a former vice president who's now a 2020 presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the intelligence committee and one of Trump's staunches defenders, used his opening statement to censure the leaked reports about the complaint that forced the White House to publicize the call. He also accuse Democrats and the media of "ginning up a fake story" to hurt the president. Nunes suggested in questions to Maguire that the leaks about the whistleblower complaint to the press came from someone in the intelligence committee and that's the "real scandal."
Maguire pushed back, noting the whistleblower complaint reported about 12 people were listening in on Trump's call and then members of the State Department were briefed on notes from the conversation.
"Ranking Member, I lead the intelligence community. We know how to keep a secret," Maguire said.
Late Wednesday, most Republicans who got an advance look at the complaint were quiet or defended the president as they left secure rooms. But at least one Republican said he was concerned by what he had read.
"Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say 'there's no there there' when there's obviously a lot that's very troubling there," said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a GOP member of the Senate intelligence panel who has been an occasional critic of Trump.
And Sasse isn't alone.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who is on the House Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that Trump's conversation with Ukraine's leader was "not OK."
"I've read the complaint and I've read the transcript of the conversation with the president and the president of the Ukraine. Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president: This is not okay. That conversation is not okay. And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript," Turner said before he began questioning Maguire.
Atkinson, who met privately with House lawmakers last week, will talk behind closed doors to the Senate intelligence panel Thursday.
The House and Senate committees have also invited the whistleblower to testify, but it is uncertain whether the person will appear and whether his or her identity could be adequately protected without Maguire's blessing. Schiff said Wednesday morning that Maguire still had not provided any instructions on how that could happen.
The whistleblower is prepared to speak privately before the Senate and House intelligence committees but the person's lawyers want to first ensure that they have the appropriate security clearances so that they can be present for any meeting, according to correspondence reviewed by The Associated Press.
"Legal representation is imperative in these matters," Andrew Bakaj wrote in a letter Wednesday to Maguire.
A separate letter to Maguire from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Schiff makes a similar request for "appropriate security clearances" for the lawyers.