WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman on Thursday accused the Justice Department of blocking intelligence officials from giving Congress a whistleblower complaint reported to involve communications between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader.
The Washington Post, which first reported the matter, said the country involved was Ukraine, citing unnamed sources.The House panel’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, charged the Trump administration with blocking a congressional inquiry after receiving a closed-door briefing from the inspector general for U.S. spy agencies.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters the whistleblower complaint at the center of the dispute alleged “multiple acts” by Trump, not just a phone call with a foreign leader. The source requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Trump on Thursday called the Washington Post report “Fake News.”
The dispute is the latest chapter of a power struggle in which the Trump administration has been resisting efforts by Democratic lawmakers investigating the president’s business dealings and actions to obtain documents, records and testimony from White House and senior agency officials.
Reuters has not been able to confirm details of the whistleblower’s complaint.
The Washington Post said Trump spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a few weeks before the whistleblower complaint was filed.
Asked about the Post report, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN: “If what is reported is true, it doesn’t make any difference.”
“If the president of the United States said to the president of Ukraine ‘investigate the corruption in your country that has a bearing on our 2016 election’, isn’t that what he’s supposed to do?” Giuliani said.
A congressional source said senators had not been briefed on the country involved in the whistleblower complaint.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the Washington Post report mentioning Ukraine. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I don’t know whether the White House is directly involved, because we can’t get an answer to that question, but we do know that they are making some claim that a privilege may apply,” Schiff told reporters.
The dispute erupted after Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson told the committee in a Sept. 9 letter that he had received an Aug. 9 whistleblower complaint that he deemed urgent and credible, the legal threshold requiring its transmission to Congress.
But a Sept. 13 letter to the House panel and the Senate Intelligence Committee asserted that acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire - after consulting with the Justice Department - found that the complaint did not meet the legal definition of “urgent concern.”
In the letter, Jason Klitenic, general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, also said the complaint was not subject to disclosure because it did not concern conduct by an intelligence official or an intelligence activity overseen by the DNI, as required by the law.
“Furthermore, because the complaint involves confidential and potentially privileged communications by persons outside the Intelligence Community, the DNI lacks unilateral authority to transmit such materials to the intelligence committees,” he wrote.
Because of the findings, Atkinson was unable to provide details on the complaint in speaking with the committee, lawmakers said.
Schiff said the Justice Department had misinterpreted the law in blocking Maguire from disclosing the complaint.
Another Democratic member of the committee, Mike Quigley, was more direct, charging that Attorney General William Barr was seeking to protect the president.
“Mr. Barr and the Department of Justice’s job in their mind is to protect the president,” he told reporters. “And it doesn’t matter if that violates the laws.”
CNN said on Thursday both the White House and Justice Department were involved in advising Maguire not to give Congress a copy of the complaint.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while a spokeswoman for the Justice Department referred to the two letters Atkinson had sent the committee. Maguire’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself,” Trump said on Twitter.
“Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call,” he said.
Schiff had issued a subpoena to Maguire last week in an attempt to force him to turn over the whistleblower’s complaint.
He said on Thursday the committee could be forced to go to court to seek an order compelling officials to disclose the complaint.
“I hope that the director of national intelligence will reconsider because it’s my understanding that by law he can provide this to us and by law he’s required to provide this to us,” Schiff said.
Maguire is scheduled to testify in public to the panel next week.
A congressional source told Reuters the complaint was filed with the inspector general on Aug. 12. Two congressional sources said the Senate Intelligence Committee had not been fully briefed on the complaint.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Tom Brown, Lisa Shumaker, Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell