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Senate Intelligence goes slow, seeks meeting with whistleblower

Panel met behind closed doors with acting intelligence director, inspector general

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, in closed session. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, in closed session. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Intelligence Committee is just getting started on a review and inquiry into the whistleblower complaint that has rocked Capitol Hill this week.

“We’ve had a very productive first day. There’s a lot that we have to learn to proceed forward, but it’s our intention to go through that process,” Chairman Richard M. Burr told reporters after a closed hearing with Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson.

[Whistleblower can’t explain Trump’s DNC missing server theory]

Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said Maguire and Atkinson were “extremely forthcoming with us today, extremely helpful with trying to fill in some of the things that we haven’t been able to pick up just from the published documents.”

The Intelligence panel prefers to conduct its business away from the spotlight.

Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, a Senate Intelligence member, told reporters it was his hope and expectation that the committee would be able to hear directly from the whistleblower.

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“I do, and I believe we will,” Blunt, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said after the hourslong meeting. He also added that he would continue to reserve judgement.

“I think we’re committed to [gathering] the information before we reach conclusions,” he said. “Other people that don’t have this responsibility can reach conclusions, and I don’t fault them for this, but we’ve been asked to look at this, and we’ve made big steps today.”

At issue is formal reporting from an intelligence community whistleblower who raised alarms that President Donald Trump used his office to pressure the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to influence the 2020 U.S. election by seeking an investigation of the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent. 

[Searching for counter-strategy, Trump floats legal action to halt impeachment inquiry]

Burr said staff will be working through the two-week recess to pursue answers to remaining questions and new questions that arose from Thursday’s hearing. Burr suggested the review would go well into the next work period following the recess.

“Don’t expect us to move at light speed — that’ll probably happen in the House,” he said. “But the committee is committed to [making] sure that we get to the bottom of what questions need answered.”

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Different approaches

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, struck a similar tone. It’s another demonstration of the different approach Senate Intelligence has taken in comparison to its House counterpart in investigations involving the president.

“Once again, this committee showed it can take on an extraordinarily serious issue in a bipartisan way. It’s been a rollicking week,” Warner said Thursday. “We’ve all followed that. One of the most important things that came out of today, though, was maintaining the integrity of the whistleblower process.”

Warner also suggested there may be a need to pursue legislation based on lessons learned from the current complaint. The Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department had told Maguire, the acting DNI, that the complaint did not qualify for mandatory transmittal to Congress under current law.

“People need to be able to come forward when they’ve seen incidents of waste, fraud, abuse or inappropriate behavior and feel that there are not going to be reprisals. So that is another issue that we’ve worked on,” Warner said. “And if there are current gaps in some of the legislation, we’ll look at that as well. There is obviously a lot of work to be done, and we’re going to get at it.”

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden called the whistleblower complaint “very troubling and very different” from earlier bases for impeachment that House Democrats have been examining.

In special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, there was always “six degrees of separation” between Trump and the alleged illicit activity by his campaign team and White House aides, he said. 

“There are no buffers here,” Wyden added.

Making statements  

Many senators were tight-lipped leaving the Intelligence Committee’s secure meeting area Thursday, including Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Sasse referred reporters back to comments from Wednesday in which he cautioned against a rush to either impeach Trump or to “circle the wagons” behind the president.

California Sen. Kamala Harris adjusted her presidential campaign schedule to make the Intelligence Committee meeting, and fellow 2020 Democratic hopeful Michael Bennet of Colorado was also present.

Harris did not speak with reporters as she left. But her departure was quickly followed by the release of a letter to the State Department inspector general seeking review and preservation of documents related to possible State Department involvement with actions by Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“I am particularly concerned that department officials might have been aware of or aided Mr. Giuliani in violation of law or regulations against engaging in partisan political activities,“ Harris wrote to State Department inspector general Steve Linick.

Her California colleague, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, a former Intelligence chairwoman, called for the Senate to get access to any actual transcripts of the conversation in question between Trump and Zelenskiy.  The document released Wednesday that was described as a “transcript” of the call was not verbatim.

“The complaint also suggests that an ‘official word-for-word transcript of the call’ was produced; if so, it should be provided to Congress for review. Congress has a constitutional oversight duty,” Feinstein said in a statement. “It’s important that we understand who took actions to hide details of the call with [Zelenskiy] and how high those actions reached.”

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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