Three years into the Trump administration, the US government still doesn’t know how to handle Donald Trump as president. That’s the simple conclusion from a dramatic morning in Washington, DC, that saw both the release of the nine-page complaint by an intelligence official whistle-blower and testimony about those allegations by a visibly uncomfortable Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence.
The whistle-blower complaint paints a picture of a White House in a panic after a July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. In a recently released recap of that call, Trump appears to ask for help digging up dirt on his US political opponents. The complaint itself goes even further, alleging that White House officials sought to hide digital record of that call in a computer system typically reserved for highly classified matters like covert actions. “One White House official described this act as an abuse of an electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective,” the whistle-blower wrote.
As the whistle-blower’s complaint spread through the US government, Maguire himself acknowledged the rarity of the situation. “I believe this matter is unique and unprecedented,” he said at one point. “It was urgent and important.”
Maguire, a former SEAL and career Navy official, had until a few weeks ago worked in relative federal obscurity as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. He was elevated on August 15 to be the acting head spy for the country, after the ouster of his predecessor, Dan Coats and then-deputy director of national intelligence Sue Gordon. “I did not look to be sitting here as the acting director of national intelligence,” he told the committee.
Yet his Capitol Hill testimony before the House Intelligence Committee made Maguire the first public witness in a fast-moving scandal that has unfolded in less than two weeks. That’s when an enigmatic letter from representative Adam Schiff, the chair of the intelligence committee, first made public hints of the whistle-blower’s allegations—allegations that had landed in Maguire’s lap when he took over as acting DNI just four days after the complaint was filed.
Maguire told the committee that as soon as he read the whistle-blower’s complaint this summer, he knew it was serious, and that he’d be forced to testify about it before Congress. As it happens, that testimony came on the heels of speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi announcing a formal impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s backers had hoped that the release of the White House memo—not quite a formal transcript but an abridged summary of the call created after-the-fact by National Security Council officials—would make clear that there was no formal “quid pro quo” between Trump and Zelensky. Instead, the release seemed the most damning document to arrive in Washington since Richard Nixon released his White House tapes with a missing 18 and a half minute gap. They surprisingly pointed to how Trump tried to enlist Zelensky to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as well as attorney general William Barr to investigate the Biden family’s work in Ukraine.
The contents of the call left Democrats and reporters slack-jawed Wednesday, as Washington digested what seemed among the clearest possible cases of a president prioritizing his own political interests—and the punishment of his domestic electoral opponents—above the national interest of the United States.
During his testimony, Maguire talked lawmakers through his own struggles handling a whistle-blower complaint that involved such troubling behavior by the President of the United States himself. The law requires him to report the complaint to Congress, but seemed to Maguire potentially covered by executive privilege that superseded his own authority as acting DNI. He ultimately turned to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel—the division that serves as the US government’s own in-house lawyers—for a binding opinion on how to respond. Democrats, for their part, pressed Maguire about the complaint’s focus on the president and the head of the Justice Department. Was it appropriate, then, to ask the two main alleged conspirators in the complaint whether that conspiracy should be reported?