If Donald Trump was looking for his intelligence chief to defang the Democratic rush to impeachment, he didn’t get it on Thursday.
During more than three hours of questioning, acting Director of Intelligence Joseph Maguire further solidified the resolve of House Democrats that the president’s conduct on a call with the Ukrainian president formed the foundation of an impeachment case.
The hearing, which was not technically part of the formal impeachment investigation that began in earnest this week, was undeniably shaped by it. Democrats trained their fire on the process Maguire went through after receiving the complaint, and on whether the White House and Department of Justice had influenced Maguire’s initial decision to withhold the explosive whistleblower complaint from Congress.
Though Democrats were reluctant to declare that the whistleblower complaint—and the White House’s handling of it—constituted a ready-made impeachment case, they spent Thursday’s hearing laying the groundwork through largely process-oriented questioning. It’s a strategy that fits with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official line on her party’s renewed impeachment plans: assiduous fact-finding first, and articles of impeachment later—if at all.
Setting the tone was House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who grilled Maguire over the question of when his office went to White House and Department of Justice lawyers—all while knowing that those officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, were subjects of the whistleblower’s complaint.
"You went to the subject of the complaint for advice,” asked Schiff, “on whether you should provide the complaint to Congress?"
Democratic lawmakers left the hearing on Thursday increasingly convinced that the complaint, and Maguire’s testimony, pointed to a concerted effort by the White House to prevent Trump’s call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky from becoming public.
That move, to Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), another Intelligence panel member, would constitute an impeachable offense—if proven.
“If the allegations in the complaint are true, of an attempt to extort a foreign leader for political gain, of an attempt to cover that up by putting transcripts into unusual locations, that certainly meets, at least in my mind, the standard of an impeachable offense,” he said.
The nine-page complaint, released minutes before Maguire’s testimony began, details allegations the individual said were told to them by multiple “deeply disturbed” White House officials.
It centered on a July 25 phone call with Zelensky in which Trump asked Ukraine’s leader to do him a “favor” and investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, according to a previously released transcript.
That call was so disturbing, the complaint said, that White House officials moved to “lock down” the details of the call because of the likelihood “that they had witnessed the President abuse his office for personal gain.”
The records were transferred to the White House’s most secure servers, usually reserved “to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
“One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the complaint said.
It also notes White House officials told the whistleblower that this wasn’t the first time that a transcript of a talk between Trump and a world leader had been placed into the White House’s most secure system “for the purpose of protecting politically sensitive… information.”
The whistleblower wrote that while they were not personally privy to the events that sparked their concern, enough officials had relayed similar accounts the whistleblower believed them to be true and urgently in need of attention.
Maguire dropped no bombshells as he defended his office’s delay in sending the complaint to Congress. In the process, however, he did offer some revealing answers. For example, Maguire cited executive privilege in refusing to say whether he had discussed the complaint with President Trump—even while he categorically denied that Trump had asked him to disclose to him the whistleblower’s identity.
Maguire also confirmed on numerous occasions that he believed the whistleblower was credible, though he shied away from questions over whether the complaint met the legal definition of “urgent” that would have required congressional notification.
Repeatedly, he noted that “it is not my place” to determine the credibility of a whistleblower complaint. In the process of doing that, Maguire said he felt the complaint lined up with the transcript of Trump’s call.
In response to a question from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) about whether the whistleblower was a “spy” as Trump has openly mused, Maguire said that person had followed the law and believed they were acting in good faith.
“As I said several times so far this morning, I believe that the whistleblower complied with the law and did everything that they thought—he or she thought was responsible under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act,” he said.
On the occasions when Democrats did go into questions around the substance of the complaint, Maguire shut them down. When Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) asked him about the whistleblower’s allegation that the White House moved transcripts of the Zelensky call to their most protected server, the intel chief replied that how the president’s office “conducts their business is their business.” At other points, Maguire simply stressed that his sole responsibility was leading the intelligence community.
“There has never been a matter that the [intelligence community’s inspector general] has investigated that did not involve a member of the intelligence community,” Maguire said, about the unprecedented nature of the whistleblower’s complaint.
Maguire did not bite either when Democrats pressed him to weigh in on whether or not Trump’s conduct was wrong, inappropriate, or detrimental to U.S. security, only saying that outside interference in American elections “is unwarranted, it is unwelcome, it is bad for the nation.”
For the most part, Republicans sought to undermine the Democrats’ arguments and distract from the substance of the complaint. Only one Republican directly addressed Trump’s conduct, Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio.
“I've read the transcript of the conversation with the president and the president of the Ukraine,” Turner said. “Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president this is not OK. That conversation is not OK. And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript.”
But Turner then trained his fire on Democrats: “We've not been focusing on the issues of the national security threats, but instead of the calls for impeachment, which is really an assault on the electorate, not just this president.”