WASHINGTON >> For days, the nation’s top intelligence official found himself wedged between lawmakers eager to see a potentially explosive whistleblower complaint and other Trump administration officials who deemed it off-limits.
Senior intelligence officials described Joseph Maguire, who became acting director of national intelligence last month, as reeling from accusations that he broke the law by keeping the complaint from Congress. Maguire, a retired three-star admiral who friends and allies say did not want the job and was unprepared to wage a political battle, now finds himself trying to protect his reputation, former officials familiar with the workings of his office said.
But he is learning as he goes, friends said. And he faced his most public test yet on Thursday when he testified before lawmakers about his refusal to hand over the complaint, which is said to sound an alarm about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and has seized Washington in recent days, prompting Democrats to announce a formal impeachment inquiry.
Maguire, 68, has confided to friends and colleagues that he feels his once-sterling reputation is under attack, a risk he accepted with the job but a turn that few predicted would happen so fast. He does not want to resign and leave behind colleagues and instead is committed to finding a solution to the crisis, people close to him said. He prepared intensely ahead of his scheduled testimony and made his case that he had not defied Congress.
“I want to make it clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way in the matter that is before us today,” Maguire said Thursday. “I want to also state my support for the whistleblower and the rights and the laws.”
Maguire later added under oath that he had not threatened to resign, denying a previous media report.
Indeed, Maguire appears to have succeeded in navigating the crux of his crisis when Trump relented this week and allowed administration officials to turn over the complaint to lawmakers conducting oversight, as an intelligence whistleblower law calls for. Maguire had refused on the advice of administration lawyers who determined that it fell short of a legal requirement to turn it over to Congress.
When the Department of Justice said the whistleblower complaint could not go to Congress, the career lawyers in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence agreed, giving Maguire confidence in the ruling.
“I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and follow the law, respecting the privileged nature of the information and patiently waiting while the executive privilege issues were resolved,” Maguire said Thursday.
But his decision to embrace that legal analysis brought him in the crosshairs of Democrats. And after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested this week that he had ignored the law, Maguire reacted with barely concealed anger.
“I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. He had struggled to find a compromise that would allow Congress to get the information but take into account the legitimate legal concerns of the Department of Justice and allow the White House to protect material it viewed as privileged.
Maguire, who is among a handful of top intelligence officials who know about the complaint’s contents, said he was committed to protecting whistleblowers and appeared to defend the current complainant. All intelligence officials and officers “have a solemn responsibility to do what is right, which includes reporting wrongdoing,” he said.
A former Navy SEAL who rose to three-star admiral and leader of the Naval Special Warfare Command over a 36-year career, Maguire has faced tough leadership challenges. A graduate of Manhattan College and a longtime Yankees fan, he has commanded at every level.
Friends and former colleagues described him as a dedicated public servant who tends to cajole friends and foes alike toward a solution, often with a joke.
“Joe’s life is about service,” said Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, where Maguire served as deputy while in active service and later as director. “And there is no way Joe is going to walk out on an incomplete mission.”
For all the pressure Maguire has confronted in his first month on the job, he has told friends that he has faced worse. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most deadly time for special operators, Maguire and his wife went to funeral after funeral to pay their respects and to represent the United States.
Last year, Maguire left a job that he loved as president and chief executive of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation to run the counterterrorism center. While important in the intelligence community, the post usually draws little public attention or political fire.
Though he was reluctant, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, convinced him. “He is not the kind of guy who says ‘no’ when called upon to serve,” said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, Maguire’s predecessor at the counterterrorism center.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked Maguire’s nomination for months, seeking information on the targeting of Islamic State militants. By the time the Senate approved the nomination at the end of 2018, Mattis was gone from government.
Maguire has been “unflappable” through the current crisis, Rasmussen said.
“That comes from being someone who has been in much more consequential and stressful situations,” Rasmussen said. “The idea he would be shaken to the core by a controversy like this I find not credible. Knowing Joe, he’s focused simply on doing the right thing as he understands it.”
Maguire was not the president’s first choice when his first director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, decided to step down after his relationship with Trump frayed. The president said this summer that he intended to nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to fill the job.
But Ratcliffe was seen as highly partisan and had exaggerated parts of his resume. Republicans were also cool to his nomination and Ratcliffe withdrew. Instead, the White House, which had also forced out Coats’ deputy, Sue Gordon, turned to Maguire to serve on an acting basis.
Trump’s advisers saw him as a safe, experienced choice.
“Everyone who has served with Joe holds him in the highest regarded because he is a person of uncompromising integrity,” said William H. McRaven, former special operations commander who is a longtime friend of Maguire. “He knows that his loyalty is to the Constitution and the people of this country.”
Maguire won praise within the intelligence agencies for comments praising Gordon and saying she had deserved the post.
Almost immediately, he was swept up in a brewing political firestorm. He received the whistleblower complaint the day after Coats stepped down, Coats said at an event in Indiana this week.
“I feel so bad for Joe,” he said. “He is caught in a squeeze here, and the lawyers are divided.”
Many retired military officers who have worked for Trump have seen their reputations battered. Maguire knew of that risk but friends said that he felt that when the White House asked him to serve, he had little choice.
“Joe has never been a creature of politics, but he is not an idiot,” Leiter said. “Of course he knew he was going to a tricky place.”