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The acting intelligence chief defended the whistle-blower, calling the complaint “totally unprecedented.”
Joseph Maguire, the intelligence chief at the center of the fight over a whistle-blower complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, said the whistle-blower “acted in good faith” and called the case “unique and unprecedented.”
“I believe everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented,” Mr. Maguire emphasized as he testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
Facing tough questioning from Republicans and Democrats, he defended both the whistle-blower’s actions and his handling of the case, which he called “urgent and important.”
“I believe the whistle-blower followed the steps every step of the way,” Mr. Maguire said, a defense of the whistle-blower’s conduct that he repeated often.
The whistle-blower’s complaint, released Thursday, accused Mr. Trump of using his office to try to get Ukraine’s government to help him in the 2020 presidential election.
“It was urgent and important, but my job as the director of national intelligence was to comply with the whistle-blower protection act,” he said under questioning from the panel’s chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Schiff said he expected Mr. Maguire to explain “why you stood silent when an intelligence professional under your care and protection was ridiculed by the president, was accused of potentially betraying his or her country, when that whistle-blower, by their very act of coming forward, has shown more dedication to country, more of an understanding of the president’s oath of office than the president has ever demonstrated.”
Pelosi accused the White House covering up the Ukraine matter.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday accused the White House of engaging in “a cover-up” of the Ukraine affair, citing a whistle-blower complaint that said Trump administration officials worked to “lock down” all records of a call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president.
“This is a cover-up. This is a cover-up,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.
The use of the word cover-up seemed designed to hark back to the era of Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment.
“Every day the sadness grows,” Ms. Pelosi said. “The disregard for our constitution that our president has becomes more clear.”
Maguire says he wasn’t legally obligated to share the complaint with Congress.
Mr. Maguire said in his opening remarks that he was not legally obligated to share the whistle-blower report with Congress based on legal advice that he received from the Justice Department earlier this month.
The department had argued that the complaint did not flag behavior related to intelligence activity or a member of the intelligence community, and should therefore not be passed along to congressional intelligence committees, Mr. Maguire testified.
While the inspector general argued that the allegations met the definition of a matter that should be shared with Congress because “the D.N.I. has operational responsibility to prevent election interference,” the Justice Department argued that the allegations do not concern the funding, administration, or operation of an intelligence activity within the responsibility and authority of the D.N.I., and that the “allegations do not arise in connection with any such intelligence activity.”
The whistle-blower’s complaint accuses Trump of using his office to try to get Ukraine to help in 2020.
Here’s an excerpt from the complaint:
“In the course of my duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
The complaint goes on to say the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani is “a central figure in this effort,” but that Attorney General William P. Barr “appears to be involved as well.”
Mr. Schiff vowed to protect the whistle-blower, an intelligence officer, from reprisal as he released the complaint.
White House officials dismissed the significance of the document. “Nothing has changed with the release of this complaint, which is nothing more than a collection of thirdhand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper,” the press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. She added, “The White House will continue to push back on the hysteria and false narratives being peddled by Democrats and many in the mainstream media.”
Mitch McConnell dismissed the case for impeachment as “laughable.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, dismissed as “laughable” the Democrats’ assertion that Mr. Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival should lead to his impeachment.
In a statement to Politico, Mr. McConnell said it is “laughable to think this is anywhere close to an impeachable offense.”
“I’ve read the summary of the call. If this is the ‘launching point’ for House Democrats’ impeachment process, they’ve already overplayed their hand. It’s clear there is no quid pro quo that the Democrats were desperately praying for,” McConnell said.
If the House impeaches Mr. Trump, Mr. McConnell would have to convene a trial to consider whether to convict the president and remove him from office. In 1999, Mr. McConnell voted to convict Bill Clinton and remove him from office after he was impeached for lying under oath to deny a sexual relationship with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Maguire will not say if he discussed complaint with Trump.
Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, asked Mr. Maguire the question on many minds related to the whistle-blower complaint: “Director, did you or your office ever speak to the president of the United States about this complaint?”
Mr. Maguire hesitated, saying he spoke frequently with Mr. Trump. The congressman insisted on an answer.
In another exchange, Mr. Maguire said that the White House never directed him not to share the complaint. His delay, he said, was about sorting through possible claims of executive privilege. That detail could prove to be key as Democrats attempt to sort out whether Mr. Trump or his team inappropriately obstructed Congress’s investigation.
Nunes reprised his Trump bulldog role honed during the Mueller investigation.
Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the intelligence panel, has been one of Mr. Trump’s most steadfast allies on Capitol Hill and Thursday morning, he showed he was unmoved by the whistle-blower’s allegations.
Level-toned but brimming with disgust, Mr. Nunes pointedly accused Democrats of launching another “information warfare operation against the president,” just like they fanned the flames of unsubstantiated “Russia hoax.” He ticked through some of the greatest hits of Republican’s unsubstantiated theories about the Democrats’ “mania to overturn the 2016 election.”
They pursued “nude pictures of Trump,” he said. They sought “dirt” on Trump officials from Ukraine. Mr. Biden “bragged that he extorted the Ukrainians into firing a prosecutor who happened to be investigating Biden’s own son.”
He even worked in a reference to Nellie Ohr, the wife of a Justice Department official, an employee of Fusion GPS, and a favorite target of Republicans, as he argued that the Russia investigation was cooked up by Democrats and the F.B.I. to take down Mr. Trump.
“They don’t want answers,” Mr. Nunes said. “They want a public spectacle.”
Not every Republican on the panel appeared to be comfortable with the president’s actions. Representative Mike Turner, Republican of Ohio, said the whistle-blower complaint was “based on hearsay” and he criticized Mr. Schiff and the Democrats for jumping to conclusions.
But he also leveled a sharp critique at the president, based on the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian leader released on Wednesday: “Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president, this is not okay. That conversation is not okay.”
Pelosi faces a decision: How the impeachment inquiry should proceed.
A day after throwing her support behind an inquiry, Ms. Pelosi spent Wednesday locked in strategy meetings with her leadership team, top aides and the leaders of six committees investigating Mr. Trump. The objective: Sketch out a path for an investigation that could lead to articles of impeachment that would formally charge Mr. Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors.
Many questions remain unanswered about how quickly the House may move to assemble potential articles and on what topics.
Democrats are not yet ready to limit their inquiry to just the Ukraine episode. They plan to continue investigating other, unrelated matters as possible impeachable offenses, including the findings of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and Mr. Trump’s attempts to derail that inquiry. Those topics could help populate impeachment articles.
But during a meeting with members of her leadership team, the speaker initiated a discussion about whether Democrats should limit their case strictly to the Ukraine matter and attempts by Mr. Trump and his administration to keep it from Congress, people familiar with the conversation said. An aide to Ms. Pelosi cautioned that no final decisions had been made.
Biden is edging toward embracing impeachment.
Mr. Biden has been more restrained in addressing impeachment than many of his Democratic rivals, indicating earlier this week that he would support impeachment if Mr. Trump refused to cooperate with congressional investigations, but keeping the focus primarily on Congress’s pursuit of information in subsequent remarks.
But in an appearance on the late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Wednesday, Mr. Biden appeared to move closer to supporting impeachment, saying that “based on the material that they acknowledged today, it seems to me it’s awful hard to avoid the conclusion that it is an impeachable offense and a violation of constitutional responsibility.”
As news swirled on Wednesday about Mr. Trump’s discussion with Ukraine’s president about Mr. Biden and his son, Mr. Biden spoke at a fund-raiser in California about the challenges of exposing his family to a presidential campaign. “I was worried because I knew what was going to happen if I ran,” he said, but added that his five grandchildren were supportive.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Katie Benner contributed reporting from Washington and Katie Glueck from New York.