Schiff threatens to sue over secret whistleblower complaint

By Andrew Desiderio, Kyle Cheney and Caitlin Oprysko

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Thursday threatened legal action against the Trump administration over its refusal to turn over a whistleblower complaint that reportedly involves President Donald Trump’s interactions with a foreign leader.

The escalation came after the intelligence community’s top watchdog was blocked from sharing details with the panel about the whistleblower complaint, according to several lawmakers who attended a classified briefing Thursday with Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has been shielding the complaint from Congress, thus preventing Atkinson from discussing its contents.

Maguire’s refusal to turn over the complaint to the committee, as required by law, prompted Schiff (D-Calif.) to threaten to go to court or even withhold funding from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Schiff issued a subpoena last week for the complaint, which reportedly involves a “promise” that President Donald Trump made to a foreign leader.

Maguire’s top attorney said his office consulted with the Justice Department in determining that the complaint should not be sent to Congress — a decision Atkinson opposed, but said he was required to obey. Schiff accused the White House and the Justice Department of intervening to prevent Maguire from sharing the complaint with Congress, and suggested that the House could go to court to obtain it.

“Someone is trying to manipulate the system,” Schiff told reporters after the briefing, adding that the Justice Department is not providing an explanation about why it recommended withholding the whistleblower complaint from lawmakers. “There is no privilege that covers whether the White House is involved in trying to stifle a whistleblower complaint.”

Schiff added that he hoped a judge would recognize the urgency of the matter and quickly rule in the House’s favor.

In a letter to Schiff earlier this week, Atkinson said he and Maguire were “at an impasse,” adding that the whistleblower complaint “not only falls within the DNI’s jurisdiction but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”

As a result, Atkinson was unwilling to confirm even the basic details of the complaint, or that it involves the president, according to lawmakers who attended the briefing. Atkinson previously deemed the complaint “urgent.”

Atkinson was prohibited from sharing details of the complaint with the committee because Maguire has thus far refused to turn it over, in what Democrats say is part of a pattern by the Trump administration of refusing to comply with congressional oversight. Maguire is required by law to transmit whistleblower complaints to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Earlier Thursday, Trump dismissed the reports, writing on Twitter: “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!” He called the issue “another Fake News story.”

“Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call,” he asked. “I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”

“It never ends!” Trump wrote, complaining in another tweet that the explosive allegations were yet another example of “Presidential Harassment!”

The contents of the complaint were shrouded in secrecy from lawmakers and the public alike until Wednesday evening. The Washington Post first reported new details about the complaint in question, notably that it centered on the president’s communications with a foreign leader and that it stemmed from a phone call. According to the Post, the call included a “promise” that was concerning enough to file an official complaint.

The whistleblower is being represented by Andrew P. Bakaj, a former CIA officer and managing partner at the Compass Ross Legal Group, a national security law firm.

Bakaj, who formerly worked as a lawyer in the CIA Office of the Inspector General, declined to comment on his client or the Post’s story. Others familiar with the whistleblower’s complaint, however, confirmed its broad outlines and that it involves the president’s communications.

According to Schiff, Maguire intervened to block the documents from being transmitted to lawmakers, diverting the complaint to the Justice Department and telling the committee that would refuse to share it because it involved someone outside the intelligence community and might involve matters of confidentiality and privilege.

Maguire’s general counsel insisted in a letter to Schiff earlier this week that the Maguire had followed the letter of the law in blocking the transmission of the complaint, arguing that the whistleblower statute governing his agency only applies when the complaint involves a member of the intelligence community. Maguire is set to testify before the Intelligence Committee next Thursday.

Wednesday’s reports were also the first time Trump’s involvement has been disclosed in what could blossom into a major political controversy. In his letter to Maguire this week, Schiff accused the intelligence chief of withholding the complaint in order to protect the president.

The allegations are likely to further strain what is already an extremely tenuous relationship between the president and the intelligence community.

Most glaringly, Trump has publicly and repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community’s findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Earlier this summer he responded to reports that the CIA had tried to recruit North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s brother as an informant by announcing his opposition to such a plan. In 2017, the president is said to have revealed classified intelligence regarding U.S. operations in Syria to Russian diplomats during a meeting in the Oval Office.

The president has long sparred publicly with former intelligence community officials who served under President Barack Obama, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan.

It is unclear which foreign leader Trump had been speaking to when he allegedly made the troubling promise, but the Post report notes that in the preceding five weeks before the whistleblower lodged his or her complaint, White House records showed communications between Trump and five world leaders. That list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump spoke on the phone at the end of July. He also met with several foreign leaders at the White House and said he had received multiple letters from North Korea’s Kim.

Blake Hounshell contributed to this report.