WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on Thursday accused the Justice Department of blocking intelligence officials from providing Congress with a whistleblower complaint reported to involve communications between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the media before boarding Marine One for a trip to New Mexico, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 16, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger.
The panel’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, leveled the charge after a closed-door briefing with the inspector general for U.S. spy agencies.
“I don’t know whether the White House is directly involved, because we can’t get an answer to that question, but we do know that they are making some claim that a privilege may apply,” Schiff told reporters.
The Washington Post, citing two former officials, reported on Wednesday that the whistleblower complaint alleged Trump had made an unspecified promise to a foreign leader during a phone call, a story Trump on Thursday derided as “Fake News.”
Reuters has not been able to confirm details of the whistleblower’ s complaint.
Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson told the committee in a Sept. 9 letter he had received a complaint he deemed urgent and credible. But he said acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire found that it did not meet the definition of an “urgent concern” that would require its disclosure to Congress under an existing legal statute.
In a subsequent letter on Tuesday, Atkinson said Maguire – after consulting with the Justice Department – had found the complaint was not subject to the statute because it did not concern conduct by an intelligence official or an intelligence activity overseen by the DNI.
Because of Maguire’s finding, Atkinson was unable to provide details on the complaint in speaking with the committee, lawmakers said.
Schiff said the department had misinterpreted the law in blocking Maguire from providing the complaint to Congress.
Another Democratic member of the committee, Mike Quigley, was more direct, charging that Attorney General William Barr was seeking to protect the president.
“Mr. Barr and the Department of Justice’s job in their mind is to protect the president,” he told reporters. “And it doesn’t matter if that violates the laws.”
CNN said on Thursday that both the White House and Justice Department were involved in advising Maguire not to give Congress a copy of the complaint.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while a spokeswoman for the Justice Department referred to the two letters Atkinson had sent the committee. Maguire’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself,” Trump said on Twitter.
“Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call,” he said.
Schiff had issued a subpoena to Maguire last week in an attempt to force him to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint.
He said on Thursday the committee could be forced to go to court to seek an order compelling officials to disclose the complaint.
“I hope that the director of national intelligence will reconsider because it’s my understanding that by law he can provide this to us and by law he’s required to provide this to us,” Schiff said.
Maguire is scheduled to testify in public to the panel next week.
A congressional source told Reuters the complaint was filed with the inspector general on Aug. 12. Two congressional sources said the Senate Intelligence Committee had not been fully briefed on the complaint.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Sonya Hepinstall and Tom Brown