In early August, a whistleblower within the national intelligence community filed a complaint in which he or she expressed concern over the apparent efforts of President Trump to pressure a foreign nation into investigating one of his chief political opponents. That complaint was finally provided to the House Intelligence Committee this week. On Thursday morning, it was released to the public, right around the time acting National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. At the center of Maguire’s testimony was the question of why it took a month for him to send the complaint to Congress, when it is required by law that he send such a complaint within seven days of receiving it. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (R-Calif.) called Maguire’s behavior in delaying the release of the complaint “bewildering.”
Bewildering behavior by government officials has become commonplace since Trump took office, and so it’s not surprising that Democrats on the Intelligence Committee did their due diligence Thursday to determine whether Maguire had communicated with the president regarding the whistleblower complaint, and whether any potential communication could have contributed to its delayed release. Considering Trump is the focus of the complaint, it would amount to a massive conflict of interest if he in any way informed how Maguire — the man he personally named acting National Intelligence Director barely a month ago — handled the complaint.
When Rep. Jim Hines (D-Conn.) asked Maguire whether he spoke to Trump about the complaint, Maguire didn’t deny it. “My conversations with the president, because I am the director of national intelligence, are privileged,” he said after initially attempting to deflect the question. “It would be inappropriate for me because it would destroy my relationship with the president in intelligence matters to divulge any of my conservations with the president of the United States.”
Himes: Did you ever speak to the president about this complaint?
Maguire: My conversations with the president, because I'm the [DNI], are privileged.
Maguire's assertion that he has across the board privilege with POTUS in every instance just because he's DNI here is wrong. pic.twitter.com/9l3rsOibN7
— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) September 26, 2019
Later, however, when asked by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) whether he had a conversation with Trump about the identity of the whistleblower, Maguire did not argue that the conversation was privileged and gave a very clear answer.
Rep. Speier: Did President Trump ask you to find out the identity of the whistleblower?
Acting DNI Maguire: “Although I would not normally discuss my conversations with the president, I can tell you, emphatically, no.” pic.twitter.com/JWT6bFTbfL
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) September 26, 2019
Maguire repeatedly cited the “unprecedented” nature of the case in why he delayed sending the whistleblower complaint to the Intelligence Committee. Namely, because the complaint pertained to the president, there were legal questions about whether the information was subject to executive privilege. “I am not authorized to waive executive privilege,” Maguire testified. So he sent the complaint to White House counsel and to the Justice Department to weigh in, and their determination was that the matter did not meet the threshold of “urgent concern” that would make sending the complaint to Congress mandatory. Once the White House released the “transcript” of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, however, the executive privilege was waived, and the full complaint was declassified.
But there was an inherent conflict of interest in sending the complaint to the White House and DOJ, Schiff and others pointed out as they questioned Maguire, because both Trump and the head of the DOJ, Attorney General William Barr, were implicated by the whistleblower. “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. … Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well,” the complaint reads.
In answer to Schiff’s questioning about the conflict of interest, Maguire said, “It just seemed prudent to be able to check and ensure [about executive privilege], as a member of the executive branch, before I sent it forward.”
It’s impossible to know whether Maguire discussed the whistleblower complaint with the president himself based solely on his testimony Thursday, but it’s odd that he deflected and invoked executive privilege when asked about it, and then later didn’t hesitate in violating this privilege by noting, “emphatically,” that he didn’t discuss the identity of the whistleblower with Trump.
It’s damning enough that Barr’s office was involved in the initial suppression of the complaint, in which Barr himself was implicated. If Trump, who was the focus of the complaint, played a role it would add yet another layer of corruption to a scandal so rife with it that House Democrats felt it necessary to launch an impeachment inquiry.