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Democrats question acting intelligence director's handling of whistleblower complaint

A complaint by a secret whistleblower that centres on U.S. President Donald Trump's conversation with Ukraine's president is "unprecedented," but the whistleblower simply followed all applicable law in handling the matter, Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, testified Thursday at a House intelligence committee session.

Joseph Maguire says he believed whistleblower, inspector general each acted in 'good faith'

Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, testifies before the House's intelligence committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Maguire was clearly uncomfortable when asked about some of the allegations in the whistleblower complaint. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

A complaint by a secret whistleblower that centres on U.S. President Donald Trump's conversation with Ukraine's president is "unprecedented," but the whistleblower simply followed all applicable law in handling the matter, the acting director of national intelligence testified Thursday to open a House intelligence committee session.

Shortly before Joseph Maguire's testimony, the committee released a redacted nine-page version of the complaint. The whistleblower's identity has not been made public, even to members of Congress.

The complaint suggests Ukrainian leadership was "led to believe" a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was conditioned on whether Zelensky "showed willingness to 'play ball"' on issues raised by Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani had publicly stated his intention to secure from Ukraine derogatory information about former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The complaint also details concerns from U.S. officials about "Giuliani's circumvention of national security decision-making processes" and alleges that he learned from White House officials that efforts were made to "lock down" records of the phone call. 

House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, praised Maguire's military and political service but said he found some of the acting intelligence director's actions 'bewildering.' (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Democratic intelligence chair Adam Schiff, in his opening statement Thursday, said Trump's actions detailed in the complaint read like "a classic organized crime shakedown." 

He praised the courage of the whistleblower, but blasted the White House for not sharing information about the complaint "weeks ago," and characterized Maguire's hesitancy on that matter as "bewildering," given his reputation as a respected military leader. Maguire retired from the navy as a vice-admiral.

The unidentified whistleblower first submitted a complaint to Michael Atkinson, the U.S. government's intelligence inspector general, in August. Maguire then blocked release of the complaint to Congress, citing issues of presidential privilege and saying the complaint did not deal with an "urgent concern." Atkinson disagreed, but said his hands were tied.

During his testimony Thursday, Maguire defended his actions, stating an "urgent concern" requirement is statutorily defended and the Trump phone call did not meet the criteria, as it resided outside the purview of the intelligence community. He also said he did not have the authority to waive executive privilege, which often applies to presidential phone calls.

Maguire said he believed both the whistleblower and Atkinson acted "in good faith."

"I believe the whistleblower did the right thing," Maguire said, adding he thought the whistleblower "followed the law every step of the way."

The White House released a summary of a call between Trump, right, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, centre, in which Trump asked Zelensky to investigate former U.S. vice-president and 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden. (Bastiann Slabbers, Ludovic Marin, Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Maguire, who's only been in the role for a period of weeks after some high-profile departures, admitted he spoke to White House counsel about the complaint, but would not answer a question as to whether he spoke directly to Trump about it, citing executive privilege.

Several Democrats also questioned Maguire on why he would bring up the complaint to Attorney General William Barr, who is also a subject of it, instead of the intelligence committees.

Maguire told Sen. Mike Quigley of Illinois he was unaware if Giuliani, who previously travelled to Ukraine to meet with officials, had a security clearance to work on behalf of the U.S. government.

"My only knowledge of what Mr. Giuliani does, I have to be honest with you, I get from TV and news media," said Maguire. "I am not aware of what he does for the president."

The committee hearing comes after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday said the various committees investigating alleged wrongdoing of the Trump administration were operating under the "umbrella" of an impeachment inquiry. 

At her weekly press briefing on Thursday, Pelosi was unsparing in reading the allegation of "repeated abuse of an electronic records system designed to store classified, sensitive, national security information, which the White House used to hide information of a political nature."

"This is a coverup," she said.

Trump, speaking to reporters after the three-hour hearing, described it as a "perfect" phone call with Zelensky and unleashed a familiar laundry list of grievances against Schiff, Pelosi and investigations he again described as a "witch hunt."

Republicans disagree on seriousness

The ranking Republican member of the committee, Devin Nunes of California, accused Democrats of launching an "information warfare operation against the president," aided by "media mouthpieces."

Nunes wondered aloud how the details leaked to the media and questioned Maguire directly.

"Ranking member, I lead the intelligence community — we know how to keep a secret," Maguire responded.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about the contents of Trump's phone call, but ranking member Devin Nunes chose to focus not on the substance of the call, accusing Democrats of trying to take down the president. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Nunes seemed to express doubts, pointing to phone calls Trump engaged in with the leaders of Australia and Mexico in 2017 that were made public.

Atkinson said in his report the whistleblower had "arguable political bias," a term many conservatives have seized on in support of the president.

On Thursday morning, Nunes's Republican colleague in the House, Will Hurd, said on social media the allegations need to be fully investigated.

Ohio Republican Mike Turner also addressed the Trump-Zelensky call, expressing his disappointment.

"I want to say to the president, 'This is not OK. That conversation is not OK,'" said Turner.

Most Republicans defended the president as they left the secure rooms where they read the complaint Wednesday, though senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse expressed their concerns.

Atkinson, who met privately with House lawmakers last week, will talk behind closed doors to the Senate intelligence panel Thursday.

Maguire, too, will go behind closed doors Thursday to speak to the Senate intelligence panel.

Advised after the hearing that Trump tweeted that he had no credibility, Schiff responded, "I'm always flattered when I'm attacked by someone of the president's character."

The House and Senate committees have also invited the whistleblower to testify, but it is uncertain whether the person will appear and whether their identity could be adequately protected without Maguire's blessing. 

The whistleblower is prepared to speak privately before the Senate and House intelligence committees, but the person's lawyers want to first ensure they have the appropriate security clearances so they can be present for any meeting, according to correspondence reviewed by The Associated Press.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has told reporters the complaint "is nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings."

"The White House will continue to push back on the hysteria and false narratives being peddled by Democrats and many in the mainstream media," said Grisham.

With files from CBC News

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