The Trump administration has plunged into an extraordinary showdown with Congress over access to a whistle-blower’s complaint reported to involve a private conversation between US President Donald Trump and a foreign leader.
Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Thursday that the Department of Justice had blocked intelligence officials from sharing the complaint with legislators.
He added: “We do not know, because we cannot get an answer to the question, about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress.”
Schiff’s statement came after a closed-door meeting with the inspector general for US spy agencies, Michael Atkinson.
The dispute erupted when Atkinson told the committee in a September 9 letter that he had received a whistle-blower report that he deemed “urgent” and “serious”.
But the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) told legislators in a September 13 letter that Joseph Maguire, the acting DNI, had determined the complaint did not meet the legal definition of “urgent concern”.
Because of those findings, Atkinson was unable to provide details in speaking with the House Intelligence Committee, legislators said.
Schiff said 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,” he said.
The row is the latest chapter of a power struggle in which the Trump administration has been resisting efforts by Democratic legislators investigating the president’s business dealings and actions to obtain documents, records and testimony from White House and senior agency officials.
CNN reported on Thursday the White House and the Department of Justice were involved in advising Maguire not to give Congress a copy of the complaint.
Meanwhile, Mike Quigley, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, charged Attorney General William Barr of 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.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House or the Department of Justice.
Maguire has agreed to testify in an open session before the committee next Thursday.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported on Thursday that at least part of the complaint involved Ukraine. The newspapers cited anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
The Post said Trump spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a few weeks before the whistle-blower complaint was filed.
Trump dismissed it all, calling the report “Fake News”.
“Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various US agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself,” he 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.
House Democrats are looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani travelled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president’s re-election effort by investigating the activities of potential rival Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
During an interview on Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was asked whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. “Of course I did,” Giuliani said.
Later, Giuliani tweeted, “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.”