WASHINGTON — A senior US intelligence official appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to discuss a whistle-blower complaint which The Washington Post said involves behavior by President Donald Trump.
According to the newspaper, the complaint filed by a US intelligence official stemmed from Trump’s communications with a foreign leader and a “promise” allegedly made by the president.
The foreign leader involved was not identified by the Post.
Trump, though giving no details about any incident, denied he would ever “say something inappropriate” on such a call.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, said he could not confirm whether the report from the Post was accurate because the administration was claiming privilege in withholding the complaint, even though the intelligence community’s inspector general Michael Atkinson said it was an “urgent” matter of “serious or flagrant abuse” that must be shared with lawmakers.
“There is an effort to prevent this information from getting to Congress,” Schiff said, describing it as an unprecedented departure from law.
Schiff said the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, in a further departure from standard procedure, consulted with the Justice Department and perhaps the White House, in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress.
Because the acting intelligence director is claiming privileged information, Schiff said he believes the whistle-blower’s complaint “likely involves the president or people around him.”
Schiff spoke to reporters after Atkinson appeared behind closed doors Thursday but declined to tell the panel the substance of the complaint.
The newspaper reported the complaint involves an intelligence official’s allegation that Trump made the promise to an unidentified foreign leader in a telephone call. It cited two anonymous former US officials.
The Post said the whistle-blower complaint was filed with the inspector general on August 12 and that it involved Trump’s communications with the foreign leader.
According to the newspaper, Trump had communications or interactions with at least five foreign leaders in the preceding five weeks, including a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 31.
During that period, Trump also met with the prime minister of Pakistan, the prime minister of the Netherlands and the emir of Qatar and received two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it said.
The Associated Press has not confirmed the report.
Trump dismissed it all.
“Another Fake News story out there – It never ends!” Trump tweeted. “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various US agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!”
He asked: “Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”
But the situation raised Democrats’ concerns that the intelligence community might be under pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress.
Trump named Maguire, a former Navy official, as acting intelligence director in August, after the departure of Director Dan Coats who often clashed with the president, and the retirement of Sue Gordon, a career professional in the No. 2 position.
Although Maguire has refused to discuss details, he has been subpoenaed by the panel and is expected to testify publicly about the whistle-blower complaint next Thursday. Atkinson is expected to be there next week, too.
The Atkinson briefing in a US Capitol secure room lasted all morning and into Thursday afternoon.
Lawmakers on the intelligence panel appeared frustrated as they left the closed session.
“There’s a lot more we have to learn,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.
In calling the inspector general to testify, Schiff said Atkinson determined the whistle-blower complaint was “credible and urgent” and should be “transmitted to Congress.”
But Atkinson mostly discussed process with the committee Thursday, apparently constrained by the law governing his own position.
His testimony was described by three people with knowledge of the proceedings. They were not authorized to discuss the meeting by name and were granted anonymity.
In issuing a subpoena for Maguire to appear, Schiff said the complaint had not been transmitted to Congress within 10 days “in violation of the law.”
Schiff noted in his letter seeking Maguire’s testimony that “your office consulted the Department of Justice about the complaint even though the statute does not provide you discretion to review” the inspector general’s findings, “let alone to involve another entity within the executive branch.”
Andrew Bakaj, a former intelligence officer and an attorney specializing in whistle-blower reprisal investigations, confirmed that he was representing the whistle-blower but declined further comment.
In a letter Tuesday, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Jason Klitenic, wrote that the agency is protecting the whistle-blower and argued the allegation does not meet the definition of “urgent concern.” He said the complaint “concerned conduct from someone outside the intelligence community and did not relate to ‘intelligence activity’ under the DNI’s supervision.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said Thursday on MSNBC that the acting director “broke the law when he decided to basically intercept the inspector general’s report to Congress.”
That’s “never been done before in the history of inspector general reports to the Congress,” Himes said. “And the American people should be worried about that.”
Himes added that lawmakers are in the uncomfortable position of not knowing any more than what’s in the news reports.
“We don’t know exactly what is in the substance of this complaint,” he said. “It could be nothing. It could be something very, very serious.”