Whistleblower alleges White House coverup

By Meg Wagner, Veronica Rocha, Amanda Wills, Mike Hayes and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 8:37 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019
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12:29 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019

The hearing is over. Here's what you need to know.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee just wrapped.

The hearing started just moments after a whistleblower's complaint against President Trump was released. The complaint alleges that Trump abused his official powers "to solicit interference" from Ukraine in the upcoming 2020 election, and the White House took steps to cover it up.

Here's what we learned at the hearing:

  • On the timing of the complaint: Maguire said the whistleblower's complaint centered around a phone call between President Trump and a foreign leader — a kind of conversation that is "typically subject to executive privilege." That's why he didn't release it earlier.
  • On the whistleblower's motives: Maguire said he believes both the whistleblower who filed the complaint against President Trump and the inspector general who handled it "acted in good faith."
  • On the nature of the complaint: The acting spy chief said the case that they're discussing today is "unique and unprecedented" compared to other whistleblower cases he is aware of.
  • On the whistleblower's identity: Maguire said he doesn't know who the whistleblower is. Trump never asked him to find out the identity of the whistleblower, he said.
  • On protecting elections: Maguire said "the greatest challenge" the intelligence community has right now is maintaining "the integrity of our election system."
  • On foreign help in elections: The spy chief said that if a president pressured a foreign government for help winning an election, it would be “unwarranted,” “unwelcome” and “bad for the nation" — but he did not say if it was illegal.
12:33 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019

House GOP leader: Democrats opened impeachment inquiry "without one bit of evidence"

ON CAPITOL HILL / From CNN's Clare Foran and Haley Byrd 

Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy defended Trump in light of the whistleblower complaint, arguing that nothing he has seen rises to the level of impeachment.

He criticized Democrats for opening an impeachment inquiry, saying they’re doing so “without one bit of evidence.” 

When asked about the whistleblower's allegation that White House officials stored the transcript of the Ukraine call in a more secure location than typical, McCarthy argued that would have been reasonable. 

“Now I could I see why you would want to put it on a more secure server knowing that earlier in his administration a conversation with another leader from Australia was put forward? Or I watched a New York Times anonymous editorial working within the White House wanting to do anything to undercut him? I think in the world of technology today, yeah, people should secure what’s going forward," he said.

When asked if what the President did is defensible, McCarthy responded, “Yes. What in this case rises to impeachment? This is a president of the United States that had a conversation with a leader in another country." 

“I think it’s very clear that it’s not” impeachable, McCarthy said. “There is nothing in that transcript that rises to impeachment."

12:16 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019

DOJ ignored additional allegations in considering whether DNI could share complaint with Congress

From CNN's Katelyn Polantz

The Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel essentially ignored additional allegations from the whistleblower outside the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call when it determined his complaint should be kept in-house, according to a newly unsealed memo from the DOJ policy office.

OLC’s Steven Engel was tasked to interpret only whether the whistleblower complaint was indeed an "urgent concern" under the law. The Office of Legal Counsel decided it was not.

The Office of Legal Counsel was the first unit within the Justice Department to learn of the whistleblower's complaint, senior officials said yesterday.

The OLC's acknowledgement of the other allegations are in two footnotes in the now-declassified September 3 opinion advising Director of National Intelligence what to do about the complaint. The OLC's binding advice was to keep the whistleblower complaint within the Justice Department for a possible criminal probe instead of sending it to Congress in early September. 

The original September 3 memo acknowledges the whistleblower's accusations that the President chose to suspend security assistance to Ukraine because of an improper motive, and that White House officials attempted to lock down the transcript of Trump's July call out of political rather than national security concern. But those accusations aren't part of the OLC's main considerations, instead appearing only in the memo's footnotes.

The Office of Legal Counsel posted the redacted September 3 memo on its website Thursday morning, noting it is now declassified. The Justice Department had previously released a slightly rewritten, unclassified version of the same legal opinion that did not include the two footnotes acknowledging the whistleblower's other concerns.

"The complainant stated that some officials at the White House had advised that this action may have been an abuse of the system," the office of legal counsel's head Steven Engel wrote in the original memo regarding accusation of the White House attempting to bury the transcript, "but the ICIG did not discuss this allegation in concluding that the complaint stated an urgent concern."

The legal policy office ultimately sent the whistleblower's complaint to the Criminal Division, which considered whether the President's call could have violated a campaign finance law prohibiting foreign contributions in American elections. 

More context: Senior Justice Department officials said Wednesday the prosecutors looked at the call transcript alone for whether the President's actions could have violated that law--but did not acknowledge looking for other possible crimes. The newly released OLC memo, too, only acknowledges in its reasoning the possibility of that foreign influence campaign finance violation.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff expressed frustration with the limits of the DOJ inquiry at a hearing on Thursday.

12:18 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Acting intel chief, who's been on the job 2 months, says his predecessor wasn't aware of the whistleblower complaint

From CNN's Alison Main 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi just questioned Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire on whether he discussed the whistleblower complaint with former DNI Dan Coats or Coats's former deputy Sue Gordon.

Not only did Maguire deny that he discussed the complaint with either of them, he told Krishnamoorthi he would not have taken the job if he had. Maguire took this job nearly two months ago.

Maguire also said he didn't think Coats or Gordon were aware of the complaint or that Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson had it. 

 "To the best of my ability, I do not think either Director Coats or our principal deputy Sue Gordon have any sense at all about this whistleblower complaint or that Michael Atkinson had it," he said.
12:05 p.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Fact check: Maguire’s rationale for not sending the whistleblower complaint to Congress within 7 days

THE HEARING / From CNN's Holmes Lybrand

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

During the hearing, Democratic members have pressed Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire on why he did not provide the whistleblower complaint to the committee within the seven-day period required by law.

As the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 states, if the Inspector General determines that the complaint is credible and of urgent concern then the DNI “shall, within 7 calendar days…forward such transmittal to the intelligence committees.”

The IG determined the complaint was credible on August 26. Yet Maguire didn’t provide it to Congress until Wednesday night, September 25 -- almost a month later.

Maguire claimed that because the complaint involved the President, he was required to work with the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel to determine if there was content protected by executive privilege in the complaint.

"It appeared that it also had matters of executive privilege," Maguire told the committee.

On September 24, the OLC issued an opinion refuting the IG’s determination that the whistleblower’s complaint was of urgent concern.

Maguire said that while the complaint was forwarded to the FBI, he was attempting to work out executive privilege concerns. But the law says nothing about the President or the OLC having authority to stop or slow the complaint from being sent to the intelligence committees.

Presidential authority over confidential information has long been a point of dispute between Congress and the executive branch, and the legality surrounding it remains unclear. In fact, when President Bill Clinton signed the intel community whistleblower act, he said that the law “does not constrain my constitutional authority to review and, if appropriate, control disclosure of certain classified information to Congress.”

So while the law is seemingly quite clear, the OLC argued that the law “does not cover every alleged violation of federal law or other abuse that comes to the attention of a member of the intelligence community,” especially when it concerns activity outside of a specific agency’s purview.

11:55 a.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Supporter who has spoken to Trump in last 24 hours: He "appeared more distracted" than past

From CNN's Jim Acosta

A person who has spoken to Trump in the last 24 hours said the President "appeared more distracted" than he's been in the past and doesn't quite appreciate the potential peril for his administration in light of the latest of revelations in the Ukraine investigation. 

The supporter, who had a phone conversation with Trump, said the President was bragging that the Ukraine controversy was fueling his base and pointing to how much money his campaign had raised over the last few days.

But this supporter said a difference in Trump's focus was noticeable during the call, adding the President seemed distracted at times during the discussion.

Trump, the supporter said, views the Ukraine issue as more of a "pain in the ass," not the growing legal challenge that's emerged this week.

11:55 a.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Spy chief says a president asking for foreign help in election is "bad for the nation" — but doesn't say if it's illegal

THE HEARING / From CNN's Mike Conte 

 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Andrew Harnik/AP

In an exchange with Democratic Rep. Denny Heck, Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire said that if a president pressured a foreign government for help winning an election, it would be “unwarranted,” “unwelcome” and “bad for the nation."

He did not, however, say if it was illegal.

Here's the full exchange:

Heck: Director, whether it’s this President or any president, do you believe it is OK for the president of the United States to pressure a foreign country into helping him or her win an election?

Maguire: Congressman Heck, I believe that no one is above the law. And we’ve discussed what we think applies to the law. 

Heck: So it is illegal to solicit?

Maguire: No I can’t answer that, again sir—

Heck: I can’t reconcile your two statements. Is it ok for a president to pressure, any president, to pressure a foreign government for help to win an election?

Maguire: It is unwarranted, it is unwelcome, it is bad for the nation, to have outside interference, any foreign power—

Heck: Thank you. And by extension, it would be equally unacceptable to extort that assistance as well?

Maguire: I mean, all I know is that I have the transcripts as you have. I have the whistleblower complaint as you have. And—

Heck: I wasn’t referring to the whistleblower complaint, but if any president were to do this, and I accept your answer. I think it’s beyond unacceptable, director.

Maguire: Yes sir.

11:49 a.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Joe Biden: Trump "believes he can do anything and get away with it"

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Former Vice President and current 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden said Trump "believes there is no limit to his power" and "believes he is above the law."

"This isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a national issue," Biden tweeted.

Why Biden matters: President Trump repeatedly pushed for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, and his son, Hunter, during a July 25 phone call, according to a transcript of the conversation released by the White House.

There is no evidence of wrongdoing on the Bidens' parts.

Here's Biden's full tweet:

11:47 a.m. ET, September 26, 2019

Lewandowski may lead White House impeachment team

From CNN's Dana Bash, Kaitlan Collins, Vicky Ward and Kevin Liptak

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Corey Lewandowski, the political operative who helped elect President Trump, has had conversations with White House officials in recent days about potentially taking a position inside the administration to help Trump confront a looming impeachment fight.

The discussions, including a Thursday afternoon meeting at the White House, reflect the growing recognition among Trump’s allies and advisers that he is without a clear strategy for managing the crisis, which exploded in stunning fashion this week.

Trump's 2016 campaign manager would be in a crisis management type role, and the idea as it currently stands would be for Lewandowski to assemble a team that mirrors the one that existed in Bill Clinton’s White House when he was facing his own impeachment. 

The list of potential players on the team includes David Bossie, his former deputy campaign manager who angered the President earlier this year by soliciting funds using Trump’s name. Bossie served as the chief investigator of the House Oversight Committee in 1997, helping scrutinize Clinton.

The team would be to help spearhead strategy and messaging as the House of Representative’s impeachment probe heats up. The role could also exist outside the White House, and many of the details of the arrangement are still unclear.