The chairman of the House intelligence committee said the Department of Justice is involved in the decision to withhold from Congress the contents of a whistleblower complaint that reportedly concerns President Donald Trump making an unspecified promise to a foreign leader.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaking to reporters after a closed-door meeting with the intelligence community’s inspector general, said the acting director of national intelligence is being blocked by the DOJ, and possibly the White House, from sharing the complaint with Congress.
He said that a claim of privilege is in play, suggesting that "the president or people around him" are involved.
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"There is an effort to prevent this information from getting to Congress," Schiff said.
The Washington Post first reported the complaint involves an intelligence official's allegation that Trump made the "promise" to an unidentified foreign leader. The Post cited two anonymous former U.S. officials.
The Post and NBC News both reported that the complaint involved a phone conversation Trump had, citing a former official.
Trump rejected the report as fake news and "presidential harassment."
"Another Fake News story out there - It never ends!" Trump tweeted in response to the reports. "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. No problem!"
Schiff had said inspector general Michael Atkinson determined the whistleblower complaint was "credible and urgent" and should be "transmitted to Congress."
Schiff has said the committee learned the complaint involved "confidential and potentially privileged communication." In issuing a subpoena for the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire to appear before the panel, Schiff said the complaint had not been transmitted to Congress within 10 days "in violation of the law."
The situation raises Democrats' concerns that the intelligence community might be under pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress. Maguire, a former Navy official, was named acting director in August after the departure of Director Dan Coats who often clashed with the president, and the retirement of Sue Gordon, a career professional in the No. 2 position.
Schiff noted in his letter seeking Maguire's testimony that "your office consulted the Department of Justice about the complaint even though the statute does not provide you discretion to review" the inspector general's findings, "let alone to involve another entity within the executive branch."
Atkinson testified behind closed doors at the Capitol, but it appeared he did not disclose details to lawmakers. Instead the appearance mainly involved a discussion of the process for whistleblower complaints, the sources said.
Maguire has refused to discuss details.
Schiff subpoenaed Maguire, saying he was withholding a whistleblower complaint from Congress and questioning whether he had been directed to do so by the White House or the attorney general. Maguire is expected to testify publicly about the whistleblower complaint on Sept. 26.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said Thursday on MSNBC that the acting director "broke the law when he decided to basically intercept the inspector general's report to Congress."
That's "never been done before in the history of inspector general reports to the Congress," Himes said. "And the American people should be worried about that."
Himes said ahead of the meeting that lawmakers are in the uncomfortable position of not knowing any more than what's in the news reports.
"We don't know exactly what is in the substance of this complaint," he said. "It could be nothing. It could be something very, very serious."
Schiff did not divulge the subject of the complaint, but said the committee "places the highest importance on the protection of whistleblowers and their complaints to Congress."
In a letter Tuesday, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Jason Klitenic, wrote that the agency is protecting the whistleblower and argued the allegation does not meet the definition of "urgent concern." He said the complaint "concerned conduct from someone outside the intelligence community and did not relate to 'intelligence activity' under the DNI's supervision."
Schiff said last week that Maguire is required to share the complaint with Congress and said the attempt to hold it back "raises serious concerns about whether White House, Department of Justice or other executive branch officials are trying to prevent a legitimate whistleblower complaint from reaching its intended recipient, the Congress, in order to cover up serious misconduct."
In issuing a subpoena to Maguire last week, Schiff outlined the situation. He wrote that days earlier the inspector general sent a letter to the Intelligence Committee notifying it of the existence of a whistleblower complaint. The next day, Schiff requested to see it.