Precisely because Maguire does not appear to be like some of Trump’s other appointees — not an amoral conspiracy theorist like Michael Flynn, nor a loyalist willing to brazenly deceive the public and twist government to the president’s purposes like Attorney General William P. Barr — he showed how poisonous this president is.
You probably hadn’t heard of Maguire before today. I have no idea what his political views are, but by all accounts even Democrats were somewhat relieved when Trump made him acting DNI, because while Trump might have appointed some political hack or pathetic lickspittle to that post, Maguire has a long and distinguished career in the military and the government.
There are, without question, legitimate questions one can raise about some of the decisions Maguire made as he handled the extraordinary whistleblower complaint about Trump’s effort to get the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 opponent. But the picture that emerged from Maguire’s testimony was of a person of integrity who found himself at sea in a government where in every direction he turned, he confronted institutions Trump had corrupted.
As Maguire testified, when he received the whistleblower’s complaint from the inspector general of the intelligence community, it was like nothing he or anyone else had ever seen — “unprecedented,” as he said multiple times. One of the first questions he confronted was whether the conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president would be protected by executive privilege and thus shouldn’t be passed to Congress.
“Such calls are typically subject to executive privilege,” Maguire said. “As a result we consulted with the White House Counsel’s Office and were advised that much of the information of the complaint was in fact subject to executive privilege.”
In other words, Maguire’s first stop, upon receiving a breathtaking set of accusations about Trump and his White House, was … Donald Trump’s White House.
But it goes even deeper than that. I want to point to this portion of the whistleblower’s complaint:
White House officials told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored [...] Instead, the transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature. One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.
This is an extraordinary allegation, that White House lawyers took steps to conceal Trump’s phone conversation from others in the government, going outside normal procedure to do so.
Upon seeing this complaint, Maguire felt that he had no choice but to find out if the president was going to invoke executive privilege. So to determine how to handle accusations against, among others, White House lawyers, he had to check with … White House lawyers.
Next, Maguire believed he had to determine whether, given the contents of the whistleblower complaint, the law did in fact require him to turn it over to Congress. Who would give him this answer? The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The Justice Department is, of course, run by Attorney General William P. Barr. Who is mentioned in the whistleblower complaint, and whom Trump told the Ukrainian president he should work with in the project to get dirt on Joe Biden. In addition to the OLC decision that Maguire shouldn’t pass the whistleblower complaint to Congress, the question of whether Trump had violated campaign finance laws by seeking something of value from a foreign source was referred to the Justice Department’s criminal division. They quickly said no.
Maguire was questioned about this sequence of events repeatedly by Democratic members of the committee. Here’s what he said at one point:
Only the White House can determine or waive executive privilege. There is no one else to go to. And as far as a second opinion, my only avenue of that was to go to the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel.
Again, there are reasons to criticize Maguire’s decisions. But it seems clear that he was operating in good faith, trying to follow procedures and the law at least insofar as he understood it. Yet everywhere he turned, he faced offices and people who were partners in Trump’s degradation of the system’s integrity. It appears that, without any intent to be corrupt, Maguire was swallowed by Trump’s corruption.
In the end, some combination of public pressure and Trump’s own hubristic foolishness in thinking he can get way with anything led to the public release of both a rough transcript of Trump’s phone call and the whistleblower complaint itself. The substance of those two documents is devastating.
Watching Maguire testify, one got the sense that he knows it and is trying to somehow emerge from his service with his integrity and reputation intact. Perhaps he should have known that, when you agree to work for Donald Trump, that’s going to be next to impossible.