Updated: September 25, 2019 8:48:04 am
Written by Michael S. Schmidt, Julian E. Barnes and Maggie Haberman
White House and intelligence officials were working out a plan Tuesday to release a redacted version of the whistleblower complaint that helped ignite the impeachment drive against President Donald Trump and to allow the whistleblower to speak with congressional investigators, people briefed on the matter said.
The move toward disclosing more information demanded by Democrats was part of a broader effort by the administration to quell the growing calls for Trump’s impeachment, and became public after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry.
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Pelosi told fellow Democrats that in a private call that she had with the president on Tuesday, he said he was not responsible for the whistleblower complaint being withheld from Congress, according to Democrats.
The precise content of the whistleblower’s complaint has not been made public. It was found to be urgent and credible by the inspector general for the intelligence community, and is said to involve Trump and Ukraine. People familiar with the situation said the administration was putting the complaint through a declassification process and planned to release a redacted version within days.
It was filed Aug. 12, several weeks after Trump spoke by phone with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The whistleblower’s identity has not been publicly disclosed.
Trump has acknowledged that during the call with Zelenskiy, he brought up his long-standing demand for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his younger son, Hunter Biden, who did business in Ukraine while his father was in office and playing a leading role in diplomacy with Ukraine.
The president and his aides had initially rejected congressional requests to examine the complaint, igniting intense criticism from House Democrats. But as pressure built in the House to begin impeachment proceedings, administration officials concluded that holding out would put them in a politically untenable position.
The appearance that they were stonewalling Congress, in their view, could prove more damaging than the whistleblower’s account. Trump also believes that the allegations about him are not nearly as damning as they have been portrayed and that disclosing them will undercut the impeachment drive, people close to the president said.
Inside the White House, recriminations have begun over how the situation devolved to a point where a formal impeachment inquiry has been announced, people briefed on the situation said.
Some of his longtime critics blamed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, for not acting more forcefully. But most blamed Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, for aggressively digging for dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine and inserting himself into official dealings with a Ukrainian official through the State Department — as well as his public statements about his efforts.
The administration’s decision to seek ways to defuse some of the tension over the whistleblower was a striking turnabout. Intelligence community lawyers sent a letter to the whistleblower’s lawyers on Tuesday, indicating that the office was trying to work out the issues that would allow the whistleblower to speak with Congress.
Andrew P. Bakaj, a lawyer for the whistleblower, had sent a letter to the director of national intelligence earlier on Tuesday, saying that his client wanted to meet with members of Congress but needed the office’s approval.
“We applaud the decision to release the whistleblower complaint as it establishes that, ultimately, the lawful whistleblower disclosure process can work,” said Bakaj and I. Charles McCullough III, another lawyer for the whistleblower.
Intelligence community lawyers have had discussions with the White House and the Justice Department officials about how the whistleblower can share his complaint without infringing on issues like executive privilege.
Allowing the whistleblower to meet with congressional investigators would provide the whistleblower an opportunity to share at least some details of the complaint he filed, even if the full document is not handed over to Congress.
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, said Tuesday that he would work with Congress and the administration to find a resolution in the standoff over congressional access to the complaint.
In a sharply worded statement, Maguire pushed back on an assertion by Pelosi that he had acted illegally by withholding the whistleblower complaint from Congress.
“In light of recent reporting on the whistleblower complaint, I want to make clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” Maguire said.
Maguire also appeared to defend the whistleblower, saying that all members of the country’s intelligence agencies “have a solemn responsibility to do what is right, which includes reporting wrongdoing.”
The administration had originally barred the whistleblower’s complaint from being shared with Congress on the grounds that it did not meet the legal definitions of a matter under the purview of office of the director of national intelligence.
But by Tuesday, the administration was working on several fronts to disclose key elements of the material sought by congressional Democrats. Trump said as he attended meetings at the United Nations on Tuesday that he would release a transcript of his call on July 25 with Zelenskiy.
The decision to release a transcript of the call made seeking a compromise on the whistleblower easier, a person familiar with the matter said. But the information in the complaint goes beyond the material in the transcript, meaning there are still potential issues of White House executive privilege that need to be resolved, the person said.
A spokeswoman for the office of the director of national intelligence declined to comment.
Since before the confrontation over the whistleblower complaint became public, Maguire has been trying to broker a compromise that would allow some or all of the information to go to Congress to resolve the crisis.
Friends of Maguire have said he has felt caught between his duty to inform Congress on the one hand and his legal advisers and the Justice Department on the other. They had said he was not legally permitted to share the information.
The White House deliberations came as Democrats announced that they were moving forward with a formal impeachment investigation of Trump.
Trump, according to people close to him, believes Democrats will overplay their hand and that once the transcript is released, it will not prove to be a problem for him.
But the whistleblower’s complaint is said to extend beyond the one phone call, and Trump has had at least one other phone call with Zelenskiy, on April 21.
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