Less than two months after taking the reins as the top official within the nation’s intelligence community, Joseph Maguire on Thursday faced the grilling of his career, defending the actions of a whistleblower whose newly declassified complaint has prompted an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
“I think the whistleblower did the right thing,” Maguire told House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA). “I think he followed the law every step of the way.”
In the first moments of a congressional hearing, Maguire defended his decision to initially withhold the complaint from the House and Senate intelligence committees, despite federal law requiring that such complaints be shared with Congress.
That reticence, Maguire said in his opening statement, was due to the historic nature of the complaint, which “touched on such complicated and sensitive issues,” including executive privilege and the fact that the complaint centered on Trump himself.
“This matter is unprecedented,” Maguire said.
Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, testified in an open hearing before the House Intelligence Committee regarding the complaint that centers on Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating former vice president and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden as well as the actions of the White House to conceal that and other calls with foreign leaders.
Maguire, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center before his surprise elevation to the acting DNI position, almost immediately faced questions about his own refusal to hand that complaint over to Congress, on the spurious grounds that the subject of the complaint—President Trump himself—is not a member of the intelligence community.
Maguire’s refusal to hand over the whistleblower’s report to the Senate and House intelligence committees, in contravention of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, forced a potential showdown between the Trump administration and Congress, and helped accelerate the flood of Democrats calling for the beginning of formal impeachment proceedings against the president. Biden himself on Tuesday said that refusal to share the complaint amounted to grounds for impeachment.
Schiff, who opened the hearings with sharply worded opening statement in which he called Maguire’s decision to withhold the complaint “troubling” and “bewildering,” pressed him on why he did not find that the complaint was “urgent,” given that congressionally appropriated military aid was being withheld from Ukraine even as the complaint was being examined by White House lawyers.
“It was urgent and important, but my job,” Maguire said, “was to comply with the whistleblower protection act and adhere to the definition of urgent concern, which is a legal term.”
Early on Thursday, a declassified version of the whistleblower’s complaint was released to the public, revealing that the whistleblower who raised the alarm about Trump’s call with Zelensky reported the White House moved to “lock down” the transcript of the conversation within days.
Schiff, who on Wednesday said a readout of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky reflected “a classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader,” has publicly condemned Maguire’s reticence to share the complaint as evidence of a “pervasive” cover-up. Schiff has denied that there are any legal hindrances to sharing the complaint with his committee, despite Maguire’s insistence.
“I don’t think this is a problem of the law,” Schiff told reporters after a closed-door briefing with the committee last week. “The problem lies elsewhere. And we’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is, [and] to make sure that the national security is protected and to make sure that this whistleblower is protected.”
Maguire, caught between Department of Justice officials who directed him not to release the complaint and Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who determined that the complaint “relates to one of the most significant and important of the Director of National Intelligence’s responsibilities to the American people,” released a public statement Tuesday saying that he hoped to come to a solution.
“I want to make clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” Maguire said. “I am committed to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring every complaint is handled appropriately.”
The Office of Legal Counsel issued a formal explanation Wednesday arguing that the complaint didn’t satisfy the criteria for an “urgent concern,” thereby bypassing the legal stipulation that it be shared with Congress. But hours after that argument was released, The Washington Post reported that the acting director had threatened to resign if he was not allowed to freely testify before Congress unhindered—a report that Maguire has denied.
“At no time have I considered resigning my position since assuming this role on Aug. 16, 2019,” Maguire said in a statement following the Post’s report. “I have never quit anything in my life, and I am not going to start now.”
Maguire reportedly told White House officials that unless the president intended to assert executive privilege, he would speak with lawmakers to defend his actions.