WASHINGTON — Over and over during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire used a single word: “unprecedented.” He invoked it repeatedly to describe an intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint. In that complaint, President Trump is depicted as attempting to exert influence on Ukraine to help his own political prospects.
Maguire was on Capitol Hill on Thursday to testify about that complaint. And in doing so, he very much stuck to precedent, reverting to the time-honored role of the reticent national security official unwilling to speculate, opine or, for that matter, defend the president who only recently appointed him.
“I am not political,” Maguire said at one point. “I am not partisan.”
Especially significant was Maguire’s complete refusal to discuss the implications of the complaint, or his evaluation of its most damning allegations. And he absolved himself of any responsibility for the kind of investigation that many now say is necessary.
“Chairman, the horse has left the barn,” Maguire told the committee’s head, Rep. Adam Schiff of California. “You have all of the information.”
“I am asking your opinion,” a seemingly irritated Schiff said.
Maguire declined to give it, saying that any decisions about an investigation were now with Schiff.
Maguire’s reserved performance comes contrast to those of other witnesses, who have used congressional hearings to defend Trump. Last week, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski gave a combative, theatrical performance before the House Judiciary Committee that earned praise from Trump.
Similarly, U.S. Attorney General William Barr turned his congressional appearance earlier this year into what some saw as an improperly muscular defense of Trump against charges he had obstructed the investigation into Russian electoral interference.
In a way, Maguire frustrated Democrats and Republicans alike with answers that were articulate, but also frequently narrow and opaque. He said little that Democrats will find useful in their impeachment inquiry against Trump, which they announced earlier this week.
At the same time, he did nothing to dispel concerns that Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky constituted an abuse of presidential power. Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the son of a potential presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s son Hunter has had dealings in the Ukraine that some conservatives have long maintained are improper.
“We know how to keep a secret,” Maguire said to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in response to a question about leaks from the intelligence community. Maguire said that he did not know the identity of the whistleblower, who submitted his or her complaint to intelligence community inspector general Michael K. Atkinson in August. Maguire did say that he thought the whistleblower “acted in good faith” and deserved protection from “retaliation.”
On Twitter and in statements to the press, Trump has cast doubts on the whistleblower’s motives. He and his closest supporters believe that a “deep state” conspiracy within the national security apparatus seeks to undermine his presidency.
Maguire did concede that the whistleblower complaint, which was made public while the hearing was taking place, was “credible.” Republicans rushed to point out that “credible” was not tantamount to “true.” Led by Nunes, they repeatedly branded the entire hearing a “charade” motivated by little more than politics.
A close Trump ally, Nunes used his opening statement to reiterate White House talking points, which had been inadvertently emailed to Democratic legislators the day before. “I want to congratulate the Democrats on the rollout of their latest information warfare operation against the president,” he said. He also criticized the media and compared the whistleblower complaint to the anti-Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. A number of the assertions in the Steele dossier have not been corroborated.
Democrats, led by Schiff, questioned Maguire about why the whistleblower complaint was not immediately turned over to Congress. Maguire conceded that he sought counsel from the office of legal counsel at the Department of Justice, as well as the White House itself, to determine whether the complaint met the standard of “executive privilege.” The office of legal counsel deemed the complaint lacking “urgent concern,” which is why it was not seen by members of the House Intelligence Committee until Wednesday afternoon.
But if Democrats wanted to portray Maguire as complicit in a White House cover-up of the whistleblower complaint, they found few good opportunities to do so. As a first salvo in the formal impeachment battle, the hearing suggested that plenty of work remains for Democrats in building their case against Trump.
The president’s supporters portrayed the hearing as a victory, though it did not deal with the substance of the whistleblower complaint, which alleges that Trump is “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
“What a dud this Maguire hearing is for the Democrats,” Trump reelection communications official Matt Wolking wrote on Twitter. “They keep asking the same questions over and over, and keep getting the same answers. What new information have they learned?”
New information is more likely to come from the whistleblower complaint itself, which was made public just as the House hearing commenced. The identity of the whistleblower remains unknown for now, though they are also expected to eventually testify.
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