If President Donald Trump thought his handpicked choice to lead the nation’s intelligence community would unconditionally have his back before Congress, he discovered today he was sorely mistaken.
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, was the first in what Democrats hope will be a line of Trump administration officials to testify in an investigation now officially pointed toward impeachment. And while the intelligence chief did not come close to denouncing the president, he made no effort to flatter him, either. He spent more than three hours testifying before a House committee trying in every which way to distance himself both from the White House and the explosive whistle-blower complaint that Democrats hauled him to Capitol Hill to discuss.
“I am not partisan, and I am not political,” Maguire said at the outset, as the former Navy vice admiral practically pleaded with lawmakers not to draw him into the scandal that prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to drop her long-standing opposition to pursuing Trump’s impeachment.
Maguire defended his own handling of the nine-page whistle-blower complaint, which landed on his desk 10 days after he started the job in mid-August and which the House Intelligence Committee released publicly just before this morning’s hearing began. But more consequentially for the president, Maguire defended the unnamed intelligence-community official who lodged the complaint, even as he repeatedly refused to judge the credibility of the allegations that were made.
“I think the whistle-blower did the right thing,” Maguire said under questioning from Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s Democratic chairman. “I think he followed the law every step of the way.” That characterization stands in stark contrast to Trump’s denunciation of the whistle-blower as “partisan” and “a political hack job.” Maguire said it was his job to “protect and defend” the whistle-blower, whose identity he said he did not know; hours later, the president said whoever gave information to the whistle-blower was “close to a spy,” and should be punished.
The complaint alleges that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” It relies heavily on the phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump repeatedly seeks to enlist his help in investigating actions by a potential Democratic rival for the White House, former Vice President Joe Biden. At Trump’s direction, the White House released a reconstruction of the call, and Maguire acknowledged that the complaint is “in alignment” with what those notes revealed. The complaint also alleges that senior White House officials acted immediately to “lock down” records of the call.
Democrats at the hearing immediately argued that the allegations amounted to a “betrayal” by the president of his oath of office and the nation, as well as a cover-up. They saw them as bolstering their case for an impeachment investigation. But they spent most of today’s hearing pressing Maguire on why he withheld the complaint from Congress, in contravention, they argued, of a federal whistle-blower law requiring him to turn it over.
“I believe that everything in this matter is totally unprecedented,” Maguire testified in his defense. He explained that because the complaint touched on a phone call between the president and a foreign leader, he thought it was “prudent” to first seek guidance from the White House counsel and the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel as to whether the allegations would be protected by executive privilege. He also disagreed with a finding by the intelligence community’s inspector general that the complaint raised an “urgent concern,” which by law would require its prompt transmission to Congress.
Democrats harped on Maguire’s decision to go first to the White House and the Department of Justice on the grounds that there was an inherent conflict of interest given that the complaint implicated both Trump and Attorney General William Barr. Maguire said he felt he had no choice. “I am not authorized as the director of national intelligence to waive executive privilege,” he said.
Maguire denied a report in The Washington Post that he’d threatened to resign if the White House ordered him to withhold the complaint from Congress. But throughout the hearing, he did little to challenge the notion that this was a job he did not seek and, given his current predicament, did not particularly want. Maguire, 68, was running the National Counterterrorism Center when Trump asked him to serve as acting DNI after Dan Coats, a former senator from Indiana, resigned this summer. He picked him over Coats’s deputy, Sue Gordon, who left the government after Trump made clear he would not allow her to become acting director.
When Maguire was asked today whether he had discussed the whistle-blower complaint with Coats, he quickly replied: “I would not have taken the job if I did.” It was not entirely clear whether he was joking. (He added that he didn’t believe Coats or Gordon were aware of the allegations when they left the government.)
Democrats repeatedly tried to get Maguire to weigh in on the substance of the complaint and to judge the president’s actions. For the most part, he held his ground. Representative Jackie Speier of California asked if he was “shocked” by what he read in the complaint. After stammering for a moment, Maguire admitted, “When I saw that, I anticipated having to sit in front of some committee sometime to discuss it.”
Again and again, he said he did not know if the allegations were true. His only job, he contended, was to pass them along to the FBI and to Congress. “I have done my responsibility,” Maguire told Schiff. “It was not swept under the rug,” he said at another point.
The closest he came to defending Trump was when he told the committee that the president did not ask him to find out who the whistle-blower was. But he wouldn’t say more about his conversations with the president, even to admit that he and Trump had discussed the whistle-blower complaint. “My conversations with the president, because I’m the director of national intelligence, are privileged,” Maguire said. “It would destroy my relationship with the president in intelligence matters to divulge any of my conversations with the president of the United States.”
Republicans largely tried to enlist Maguire in the president’s defense, as they questioned how the notes or transcript of a call between Trump and a foreign leader wound up in the whistle-blower’s hands. One GOP member, Representative Michael Turner of Ohio, did criticize the president, saying his conversation with Zelensky was “not okay.” But he went on to dismiss the complaint as hearsay and needle Democrats for rushing to judgment.
Even if Maguire seemed to try his best to remain impartial, he could not resist a chuckle at the expense of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer who is mentioned throughout the complaint as trying to get the Ukraine government to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois got Maguire to say that, yes, he is concerned about private citizens taking on the role of a quasi-ambassador without vetting or approval by the Senate. Then, when Quigley asked the intelligence director if he knew what Giuliani’s role was, Maguire laughed. “Congressman Quigley,” he replied, “my only knowledge of what Mr. Giuliani does, I have to be honest with you, I get from TV and the news media.” He added: “I’m not aware of what he does, in fact, for the president.”
Maguire also broke implicitly with Trump on the question of election interference. The president has consistently questioned or rejected the conclusion of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that its efforts continue. Maguire, however, not only endorsed that finding, he also labeled election security as the greatest national-security challenge the country faces—over the threat of a kinetic attack from North Korea, China, or another foreign foe.
He frustrated Democrats repeatedly by refusing to opine on the whistle-blower’s allegations or even to acknowledge they concerned a threat of election interference. But when Representative Denny Heck of Washington State asked Maguire whether it would be okay for any president to solicit electoral help from a foreign government, the man Trump wanted as his top intelligence officer briefly let down his guard. “It is unwarranted, it is unwelcome, it is bad for the nation,” Maguire replied, “to have outside interference from any foreign power.”
It’s that impulse Democrats hope to capitalize on during their impeachment inquiry—any feeling on the part of administration officials that they have to stick up for the country, no matter what it means for the president. If they can convince more officials to break ranks, their investigation will be that much easier.
Trump has littered the senior level of his administration with “acting” officials, a designation he has said he prefers because it gives him more “flexibility.” The implication is that they are easier to control and keep close, as Trump forces them to essentially audition for a permanent job they are fulfilling only temporarily. Maguire, however, doesn’t seem to want to play along. He may have frustrated the Democrats, but by not rising to the president’s defense, he may have frustrated his boss just as much.