WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump defended himself today against an intelligence whistleblower’s potentially explosive complaint, including an allegation of wrongdoing in a reported private conversation Trump had with a foreign leader.
The complaint, which the administration has refused to let Congress see, remains shrouded in mystery but is “serious” and “urgent,” the government’s intelligence watchdog said. But Trump dismissed the matter, insisting he did nothing wrong.
He declared that the complaint was made by a “partisan whistleblower,” though he later said he did not know the identity of the person.
He chided reporters for asking about it and said it was “just another political hack job.”
“I have conversations with many leaders. It’s always appropriate. Always appropriate,” Trump said. “At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country.”
Some of the whistleblower’s allegations appear to center on Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person was not authorized to discuss the issue by name and was granted anonymity.
Trump, who sat in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistleblower’s complaint centered on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The president responded “I really don’t know” but continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was “perfectly fine and respectful.”
The standoff raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump’s appointees are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president from the reach of Congress.
It also plunged the Trump administration into an extraordinary showdown with Congress over access to the whistleblower’s Aug. 12 complaint as lawmakers press their oversight of the executive branch.
The administration has kept Congress from even learning what exactly the whistleblower is alleging, but the intelligence community’s inspector general said the matter involves the “most significant” responsibilities of intelligence leadership. A lawmaker said the complaint was “based on a series of events.”
The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.
The chairman of the House committee said Trump’s attack on the whistleblower was “disturbing.” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told reporters it’s also “deeply disturbing” that the White House appears to know more about the whistleblower’s complaint than its intended recipient — Congress.
The information “deserves a thorough investigation,” Schiff said. “Come hell or high water, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Schiff, who said he was prepared to go to court to force the administration to open up about the complaint, said he was worried the president’s actions will have a chilling effect on other whistleblowers.
House Democrats are fighting the administration separately for access to witnesses and documents in impeachment probes. Democrats are also looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president’s reelection effort by investigating the activities of potential rival Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump was asked today if be brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy, and he answered, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.” But then he used the moment to urge the media “to look into” Biden’s background with Ukraine.
Trump and Zelenskiy are to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations next week.
During a rambling interview Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was asked whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. Giuliani initially said, “No, actually I didn’t,” but seconds later he said, “Of course I did.”
Giuliani has spent months trying to drum up potentially damaging evidence about Biden’s ties to Ukraine. He told CNN that Trump was unaware of his actions.
“I did what I did on my own,” Giuliani said. “I told him about it afterward.
Later, Giuliani tweeted, “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.” Giuliani’s efforts have sparked anger among Democrats who have claimed that Trump, in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, may have asked for foreign assistance in his upcoming reelection bid.
Among the materials Democrats have sought is a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelenskiy. The call took place one day after Mueller’s faltering testimony to Congress effectively ended the threat his probe posed to the White House.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who in May called for an investigation of Giuliani’s effort in Ukraine, said in an interview today it’s “outrageous” the president has been sending his political operative to talk to Ukraine’s new president. Murphy tweeted that during his own visit it was clear to him that Ukraine officials were “worried about the consequences of ignoring Giuliani’s demands.”
The senator tweeted that he told Zelenskiy during their August visit it was “best to ignore requests from Trump’s campaign operatives. He agreed.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump faces “serious repercussions” if reports are accurate of a whistleblower’s complaint reportedly about his contact with a foreign leader. Pelosi said in a statement today that the complaint raises “grave, urgent concerns for our national security.”
The letters also made it clear that Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, consulted with the Justice Department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress in a further departure from standard procedure. It’s unclear whether the White House was also involved, Schiff said.
Maguire has refused to discuss details of the whistleblower complaint, but he has been subpoenaed by the House panel and is expected to testify publicly next Thursday. Maguire and the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, also are expected next week at the Senate intelligence committee.
Atkinson wrote in letters that Schiff released that he and Maguire had hit an “impasse” over the acting director’s decision not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson said he was told by the legal counsel for the intelligence director that the complaint did not actually meet the definition of an “urgent concern.” And he said the Justice Department said it did not fall under the director’s jurisdiction because it did not involve an intelligence professional.
Atkinson said he disagreed with that Justice Department view. The complaint “not only falls under DNI’s jurisdiction,” Atkinson wrote, “but relates to one of the most significant and important of DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”
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