Republicans responded with a collective shrug to explosive news that an intelligence official had lodged a complaint with the inspector general about President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, the latest example of GOP lawmakers falling in line.
“It’s not like we haven’t seen this movie before: Democrats come out, they’re all spun up, [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff makes all kinds of statements, and then when the facts come out, whoa, different story!” said Trump-ally Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He compared the latest allegations to claims that Trump worked with Russia to win in 2016. “This seems to be the same kind of deal.”
The GOP’s nonchalance even extended to the decision by acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire not to share the complaint with Congress, though the law says explicitly that national security matters deemed “urgent” should be shared with intelligence committees on Capitol Hill.
Congressional Republicans repeatedly used their oversight authority to investigate Democratic administrations, demanding documents and witnesses from previous White Houses. Republicans, for the most part, wouldn’t demand the complaint’s release.
“It would have a real chilling effect on dialogue between important leaders if they think that every time someone who overhears a conversation that wasn’t even party to the conversation is going to file a whistleblower complaint and it’ll end up on the front page of periodicals across the country,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies.
The move by the administration to keep the complaint from Congress is just the latest in a months-long effort by the Trump administration to stonewall all congressional investigations related to the president. Legal experts say the pattern has undercut the separation of powers and could erode Congress’s authority in the future.
The GOP response reflects the party’s go-to posture whenever the president has been awash in controversy. Republicans are loath to speak out against the president, who is extremely popular with their base. Those who do often face criticism from voters back home and an angry tweet from Trump; some have lost primaries to Trump-favored candidates.
A few Republicans did express concerns as details emerged, but they were reluctant to criticize the president or even suggest Trump had done anything wrong.
“I think it would be wildly inappropriate for an American president to invite a foreign country’s leader to get engaged in an American presidential election. That strikes me as entirely inappropriate,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) in a telephone interview.
But Toomey called back later to clarify: “I’m not acknowledging or alleging the president did that. I have no idea what the president said to anybody. I’m just making a general point.”
On Friday, Trump went on the attack against the whistleblower, writing in a tweet that the unnamed individual was “highly partisan.”
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump’s interactions with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an unidentified U.S. intelligence official to file a whistleblower complaint in mid-August with the inspector general for the intelligence community. The Post reported late Thursday that the complaint centers on Ukraine.
Weeks before the complaint was made, Trump spoke with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a call already under scrutiny by House Democrats examining whether Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping the president’s reelection efforts.
Trump has denied doing anything improper. But during a CNN appearance Thursday night, Giuliani admitted that he spoke with Ukrainian officials about reopening an investigation Republicans think will make former vice president Joe Biden look bad. Biden leads in polls of the Democratic presidential candidates.
Late Friday, The Post reported that Trump pressed the leader of Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son in a call between the two leaders that is at the center of the complaint, according to two people familiar with the matter.
On Friday, many Republicans wouldn’t even say if it would be inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political adversary. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wouldn’t answer the question. Neither would senior Intelligence Committee member K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.).
“There’s always a chance that he was misquoted,” Conaway said when a reporter told him that Giuliani argued on TV Thursday night that the president has a right to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political adversary.
Asked if such actions were okay, generally, he added: “I don’t think you can make a blanket statement one way or the other.”
Even Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who occasionally speaks out against Trump, was fairly reserved when asked about the matter: “In theory, no U.S. instrument of power in foreign policy or otherwise can be used to affect an election. . . . That said, all these stories, about 90 percent of them, end up far different than what it is the first couple days. I think we’ll know more on Monday. I just think this is all new and we’ll see.”
Most Republicans also dodged questions when asked whether Congress should see the report at all. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate GOP leadership who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, refused to answer repeated questions about the reports or whether he thought it was improper for the acting director of national intelligence to block a whistleblower from coming to Congress.
“I can’t talk about that,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it. . . . Maybe next week.”
Newly elected Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) took the same tack, saying “I don’t know enough about it to register opinion.” When asked whether Congress should see the complaint to learn more, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said: “No not necessarily . . . . I’m not going to get into that.”
Even Jordan, who helped lead the House GOP’s investigation of the 2013 IRS controversy and the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack, said he’d leave it to the administration to decide what Congress gets: “That’s up to the president, and the president’s got to look at what’s in the best interest of the United States. He’s got to look at the big picture, and I trust him to do that.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a former Marine who worked in intelligence, seemed torn. On the one hand, he said, “the fact is, the president, to quote [famous former Rep.] John Marshall, is the ‘sole organ’ of U.S. external relations and has to have conversations in confidence with foreign leaders.”
“There’s no practical way to conduct diplomacy without it,” he said.
But on the other hand, “I’m in favor of transparency,” he added: “So if, as the White House claims, there’s no ‘there’ there, then probably the best way to dispel all of these Schiff-instigated rumors is to allow the report to go to the requisite national security committees.”
There was one exception to the nearly unified GOP response: Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he was not only “concerned” that Congress had not received the whistleblower’s complaint, but he thought it was possible Republicans would join Schiff in subpoenaing the records if Maguire continues to deny them.
“I don’t think it’s impossible. I think we probably would. To be clear: I don’t know yet. But I’m telling you that it’s certainly on the table,” he said of Republicans joining in a subpoena. “And when I say that I want to protect congressional oversight, I really mean that, so I think we have to resolve this.”
Stewart, like Democrats, has argued that the whistleblower followed the process, intending for his complaint to reach lawmakers.
But McCarthy challenged that presumption Friday, arguing that, “if they wanted it to go to Congress, they could have come directly to Congress.”
“I want to know who the whistleblower is, what are they saying — but they could have come to Congress and given it to us,” he said. “There’s channels to come directly to Congress, so I don’t know.”
McCarthy’s argument would seem to isolate the intelligence community’s inspector general, who wrote to the congressional intelligence committees more than once this month to alert them to the existence of the complaint and the fact that Maguire was refusing to transfer it to Congress, despite his assessment it was both “urgent” and “credible.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said McCarthy was wrong and the whistleblower would not have been authorized to share classified information with Congress. The individual could face criminal charges if he contacted lawmakers.
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.