Thursday 24 October 2019

Trump administration blocks 'urgent' whistleblower disclosure

US President Donald Trump (Brian Lawless/PA)
US President Donald Trump (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro

The Trump administration plunged into a showdown with Congress on Thursday over access to a whistleblower's complaint about reported incidents including a private conversation between Donald Trump and a foreign leader.

The blocked complaint is both "serious" and "urgent," the government's intelligence watchdog said.

The administration is keeping Congress from even learning what exactly the whistleblower is alleging, but the intelligence community's inspector general said the matter involves the "most significant" responsibilities of intelligence leadership.

The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that at least part of the complaint involves Ukraine, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter.

The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.

The standoff raises fresh questions about the extent to which President Trump's allies are protecting him from oversight and, specifically, if his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president from the reach of Congress.

Mr Trump, though giving no details about any incident, denied that he would ever "say something inappropriate" on such a call.

Democratic politician Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was prepared to go to court to try to force the Trump administration to open up about the complaint.

"The inspector general has said this cannot wait," said Mr Schiff, describing the administration's blockade as an unprecedented departure from law. "There's an urgency here that I think the courts will recognise."

Mr Schiff said he could not confirm whether newspaper reports were accurate because the administration was claiming executive privilege in withholding the complaint.

But letters from the inspector general to the committee said it was an "urgent" matter of "serious or flagrant abuse" that must be shared with politicians.

The letters also made it clear that Mr Maguire consulted with the Justice Department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress, in a further departure from standard procedure.

It is unclear whether the White House was also involved, Mr Schiff said.

Because the administration is claiming the information is privileged, Mr Schiff said he believes the whistleblower's complaint "likely involves the president or people around him".

Mr Trump dismissed it all.

"Another fake news story out there - it never ends!" Mr Trump tweeted.

"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. No problem!"

He asked: "Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call?"

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