House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff on Thursday clarified comments he made last month that his committee had not spoken directly with a whistleblower after his office acknowledged Wednesday it had been in contact with the whistleblower before the complaint over President Donald Trump’s conversation with the leader of Ukraine was filed.
CNN, The New York Times and others reported Wednesday that the whistleblower had reached out to a House Intelligence Committee aide before filing the whistleblower complaint. The committee directed the whistleblower to report it to the intelligence community inspector general, which is standard committee protocol when intelligence community officials bring concerns to the committee. The committee had no role in the writing of the complaint and the whistleblower shared only vague allegations about the complaint with the committee aide, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Schiff has said he did not speak to the whistleblower and does not know his identity. But even though his committee did have contact with the whistleblower, Schiff told MSNBC on September 17, after the complaint had been filed, that the committee had not spoken with the whistleblower.
“We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower,” the California Democrat said. “We would like to, but I’m sure the whistleblower has concerns, that he has not been advised, as the law requires, by the inspector general or the director of national intelligence just as to how he is to communicate with Congress.”
A Democratic committee official said Thursday that Schiff “could have been more clear” when he told MSNBC the committee had not spoken to the whistleblower. The official explained that Schiff was referring to the fact that he and the committee had not officially interviewed the whistleblower, not the whistleblower’s initial contact with the committee staff.
But Schiff’s comments and the committee’s contacts with the whistleblower have sparked a barrage of attacks from Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump, who have accused Schiff of orchestrating the complaint that has sparked the impeachment inquiry that the House Intelligence chairman is now leading.
As the face of the House’s impeachment inquiry, Schiff’s comments have given Republicans eager to discredit the House’s effort an opening to criticize him over both for the committee’s contact with the whistleblower and his characterization last week of the rough transcript of Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It could fuel further attacks as Schiff works to bring the whistleblower before his committee.
Trump has tweeted about Schiff nearly a dozen times this week and brought him up in his Oval Office meeting with the Finnish president Wednesday, accusing Schiff without evidence of being treasonous and calling for him to resign.
Republicans have gone even further to muddy the waters: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California charged that Schiff “just got caught orchestrating with the whistleblower before the complaint was ever filed,” while Trump suggested at a news conference Wednesday that Schiff “probably helped write it.’
But an attorney representing the whistleblower confirmed what House Intelligence Committee staff have said, telling CNN no one from the committee helped the whistleblower write the complaint. Schiff’s spokesman said Wednesday that the committee staff advised the whistleblower to contact the inspector general and seek legal counsel, but did not receive the complaint in advance.
Instructing a whistleblower to contact the inspector general is the proper protocol for the Intelligence Committees. The committee spokesman, Patrick Boland, said it was a “regular occurrence” for a whistleblower to contact the Intelligence Committee for guidance and said that the staff “appropriately advised” the whistleblower.
An aide for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is led by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said that on a bipartisan basis the committee directs potential whistleblowers to the relevant inspector general.
Sources told CNN that an intermediary at the intelligence agency where the whistleblower works raised concerns on behalf of the whistleblower to the agency’s legal counsel prior to the formal filing on the complaint itself. The intermediary only conveyed vague information related to the allegations that was ultimately detailed in the complaint.
Officials familiar with the situation insist that the whistleblower and the agency’s legal counsel handled the situation appropriately, particularly given the unique nature of a complaint involving allegations against members of the Executive Branch. While the whistleblower also contacted the House Intelligence Committee for “guidance” prior to filing the complaint, officials from the relevant agency say that step should not be misconstrued as the individual shopping around his or her concerns. The whistleblower only disclosed vague details related to the accusations and followed proper procedure in filing the complaint itself.
Still, Schiff’s knowledge of the rough outlines of the complaint ahead of time, even if the committee followed protocol, is only likely to fuel the Republican criticisms of the House’s impeachment inquiry, which is focused on the whistleblower complaint alleging that the President solicited help from a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political opponent and the White House sought to cover it up. Trump has publicly called for the investigation of political opponents by foreign governments and a transcript of Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian President released by the White House backs up key allegations in the whistleblower’s complaint.
Republicans have already jumped on Schiff’s characterization of the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky at a public hearing last week with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, in which Schiff compared Trump’s conversation to a “classic organized crime shakedown.” Trump and his allies have accused Schiff of falsely representing the call, though Schiff said later in the hearing that his description was “meant to be at least part in parody.”
The attacks are nothing new for Schiff, who fought with Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee during the panel’s GOP-led Russia investigation in 2017 and 2018. When Attorney General William Barr released a summary of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that said the investigation did not establish a criminal conspiracy with Russia, the entire Republican membership of the Intelligence Committee signed a letter for Schiff to resign as chairman.
Schiff responded that the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia were wrong, even if they weren’t criminal. But Schiff was one of the prominent Democrats who was hesitant about pursuing impeachment before the whistleblower complaint swung the focus to Ukraine and put Schiff at the helm of the Democratic impeachment effort.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has praised Schiff’s efforts investigating the Ukraine matter, and she brought him to her weekly press conference on Wednesday.
“We want to be fair as we go forward, and we couldn’t be better served than by the leadership of our chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi defended Schiff’s comments about Trump’s call on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday.
“He did not make it up,” she said of Schiff when pressed on her statement that he was using Trump’s words.
CNN’s Evan Perez, Zachary Cohen and Haley Byrd contributed to this report.