The acting U.S. director of national intelligence, who had blocked the release of a whistleblower complaint now at the center of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s actions, is set to testify publicly Thursday before the House intelligence committee.
Joseph Maguire is also expected to speak to members of the Senate’s intelligence committee behind closed doors.
On Wednesday evening, some lawmakers who sit on intelligence committees were allowed to view the whistleblower’s complaint. Assessments are generally split along party lines with Democrats calling it damning and Republicans predicting its public release would not cause any concern for the fate of the Trump presidency.
However, one Republican member of the Senate’s intelligence committee has a message for legislators from both parties.
“There are real troubling things here,” Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, told reporters after reading the document. “Republicans ought not just circle the wagons and Democrats ought not have been using words like impeachment before they knew anything about the actual substance.”
The controversy began last week when reports emerged that an unidentified whistleblower in the national intelligence community became alarmed about a series of actions inside the Trump administration, which include what is now known to be a July phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The whistleblower contacted the intelligence inspector general, who called the complaint “serious” and “urgent.”
Lawyers for the whistleblower have been in contact with both the House and Senate intelligence committees seeking to work out the details of having the whistleblower meet directly with the panels, if necessary.
The White House on Wednesday released a summary of the phone call that shows Trump asked for Ukrainian officials to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Democrats say the summary confirms their suspicions that the president was conducting U.S. foreign policy for his own personal political gain. President Trump however dismissed suggestions that anything he said was improper. Several Republican lawmakers also defended the president Wednesday, saying the summary does not show anything incriminating.
During a news conference following his meeting with the Ukrainian president on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Trump insisted there was “no quid pro quo” during the July conversation with Zelenskiy, meaning he did not promise any benefit for Ukraine in exchange for help on the Biden issue.
Earlier in the day, Congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, stated: “There is no quid pro quo necessary to betray your country or your oath of office.”
Trump said he supports the Ukrainian leader’s effort to combat “massive” corruption, and doubled down on his accusations against Biden and his son Hunter.
“When Biden’s son walks away with millions of dollars from Ukraine, and he knows nothing, and they’re paying millions of dollars, that’s corruption,” Trump said. He implied that Hunter Biden did similar dealings in China, without providing specifics to support his statements.
‘You’ve read everything’
“I think you’ve read everything,” Zelenskiy said, when asked whether Trump pressured him to investigate the Bidens, adding that he doesn’t want to be involved in the American election process.
“Nobody pushing,” Zelenskiy said about the call, which he characterized as “normal.”
According to the summary of the call, Trump had asked Zelenskiy to investigate if Democratic presidential contender Biden shut down a probe into a Ukrainian company that employed his son.
“The way you had that built up, that call was going to be the call from hell,” Trump told reporters Wednesday morning. “It turned out to be a nothing call, other than a lot of people said, ‘I never knew you could be so nice,’” the president added, blaming “corrupt journalists” over the controversy.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump said, according to the summary.
“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. ... It sounds horrible to me,” the summary said.
The administration has not provided evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
The call summary also showed that Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to speak with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, whom he referred to as a “highly respected man” as well as Attorney General William Barr. Trump said that Giuliani would be traveling to Ukraine. Zelenskiy said he would meet with Giuliani when he visited.
Trump also asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor” and “find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine” regarding Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity company that helped investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was not clear what Ukraine “situation” the president was referring to.
The summary’s disclosure came one day after Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump and allegations that he sought a foreign government’s help to smear a Democratic political opponent and help Trump with his 2020 reelection bid.
On Tuesday, Trump confirmed that he withheld military aid from Ukraine, saying he did so over his concerns that the U.S. was contributing more to Ukraine than were European countries.
The Washington Post had reported that Trump had told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to delay almost $400 million in military aid for at least a week before he made the call to the Ukrainian president.
Congressman Schiff called it “shocking at another level” that White House officials would release these notes and believe that somehow this would help the president.
Those notes reflect a “classic mafialike shakedown of a foreign leader,” Schiff said, referring to Zelenskiy as a leader who was “desperate for military support” in a war against Russia. Schiff noted that after Zelenskiy expressed the need for further weapons, Trump tells him that “he has a favor to ask.”
The administration acknowledges that the memorandum released by the White House is not a verbatim transcript, but a record of the “notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and National Security Council policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.”
“This MEMCON can vary greatly from a lightly edited full transcript to a vaguely worded summary of the call,” said Larry Pfeiffer, former senior director of the White House Situation Room under President Barack Obama from 2011-2013.
Law, regulation and practice forbid recordings of presidential phone calls by the U.S. intelligence community, Pfeiffer said, but working transcripts are “a long-standing practice,” intended to not only memorialize the call but to protect the president against the foreign leader or government making egregious claims about the call.
Critics of the administration are questioning whether there may be more damning information not conveyed in the five page summary of the more than 30-minute phone call.