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House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff Talks About Whistleblower Complaint


President Trump denied today that he said anything inappropriate to a foreign leader. Trump is defending himself because of a whistleblower complaint within the spy community that allegedly accuses him of doing just that.


A new Washington Post report cites anonymous sources saying the complaint involves Ukraine. Congress has been trying to find out first-hand what was said, but they're not getting anywhere with the administration. When the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, testified before the House, the agency watchdog refused to share. That's frustrated California Democrat Adam Schiff. He's the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I spoke with him earlier today. And I began by asking him why the Justice Department is saying that he can't see the substance of this whistleblower complaint.

ADAM SCHIFF: Well, I want to be clear. Our frustration is not with the inspector general. The inspector general has actually done exactly what we would hope an inspector general will do, and that is review the complaint, do an investigation to determine it's - if it's credible. And he did and found it was, and he also found it was urgent. And then he refers it to the director of National Intelligence, who has a week to review it before they shall transmit it to Congress.

And when the director did not do so and didn't even inform us that he'd withheld the complaint, the inspector general came to our committee and said the process has broken down. And...

CORNISH: But the director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, as you said, it is part of his job to determine whether a complaint is legitimate - right? - before he decides whether or not Congress even needs to know about it. And he says the complaint wasn't serious enough to tell Congress about. So why not respect that decision?

SCHIFF: Well, that's not really the decision that he made. The director has a week to review the complaint, and then the statute says he shall provide it to Congress along with any comments he wants to add.

So the director can say - I don't agree with the complaint or I don't think it's credible; I disagree with what the inspector general - but there's no authority to withhold it from Congress. The whole point of the whistleblower statute was to give a whistleblower who sees misconduct an avenue to bring that to the attention of Congress. So there's no discretion here for the director.

And it's important to point out, too, that the director isn't saying this isn't serious. He isn't saying this isn't urgent. He's just saying that this is outside of the jurisdiction of my office and, therefore, I'm not required to transmit the complaint. Now, the inspector general disagrees with that vehemently. He says it is clearly within the most important responsibilities of the director of national intelligence.

It's also clear that the director of national intelligence is operating under guidance that's been given to him by Bill Barr's Justice Department, and they're not eager for Congress to get this information. But...

CORNISH: I want to jump in on that because I think...


CORNISH: ...There has been some historic question about the division there between the executive branch and Congress. It's been said from various news reports that the complaint could have something to do with a phone call between President Trump and a foreign leader. Isn't it the president's privilege to say whatever he wants to another foreign leader?

SCHIFF: No, it isn't. It's not the president's privilege, for example, to engage in criminality. If the president were making a criminal bargain with a foreign leader, he would be no more protected than you or I. And in fact, the claim of privilege doesn't cover criminal or fraudulent activity. And here, the whistleblower complaint, according to the inspector general, contains credible evidence of wrongdoing. And so...

CORNISH: Wrongdoing - but you don't know if it's criminal.

SCHIFF: Well...

CORNISH: You're still trying to figure out the substance.

SCHIFF: We are trying to - to determine what the substances. But we know this: the inspector general found that it was an urgent matter that needed Congress's attention and that met all the requirements of the statute.

And if any party, whether it's the Department of Justice or the White House or someone, indeed, who may be the subject of the complaint, is able to deprive that - deprive Congress of that information simply because they choose to, then the whistleblower statute doesn't work at all. And that...

CORNISH: I want to ask you...

SCHIFF: ...Chills people from coming forward.

CORNISH: About that - because you said earlier that you had some concerns about national security here and also about protections for the whistleblower themselves. Are you worried that something could happen to them, some action could be taken against them?

SCHIFF: I am worried about it because the import of what the Department of Justice has said here - and this is why this is so destructive - is that we don't think that this complaint qualifies for protection, which means that the complainant doesn't qualify for protection.

So that seems to open up the door for any agency to retaliate against any whistleblower if someone in the administration decides they don't want it to qualify for protection. And that would, of course, undermine the whole thing - which would mean that people, particularly in the intelligence community, who are dealing with classified information and have no other way to report wrongdoing would have to conclude this process just doesn't work. And some of them may go outside of the law to provide classified information to the press or use other means, which is not what we want to encourage. We want encourage the lawful provision of evidence of wrongdoing to the Congress so that we can take action.

CORNISH: One more thing - we already know President Trump speaks freely about security issues. Right? He told North Korea how the U.S. was watching their rocket engine test; he told the Russians about Israelis spying on ISIS; he tweeted a photo from a highly classified spy satellite. What difference does it make? At this point, what can you actually do about it?

SCHIFF: Well, we can enforce the law. And we're looking at the remedies that we have right now. I think if there's any case...

CORNISH: Which are what?

SCHIFF: Well, I think - there are several. But I think if there's any case to get expedited court review in the form of a TRO or a preliminary injunction or a mandamus, it's here, where the inspector general said this is an urgent matter and where it clearly affects national security. But we can also look at, frankly, depriving the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of funding when they come to us for reprogramming requests or other reasons until they comply with the law. So we have financial leverage. But the fact of the matter is that...

CORNISH: I have to jump in here.

SCHIFF: ...The clock is ticking, and this is urgent, and we need to get answers.

CORNISH: That's Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee.

Thank you for speaking with us.

SCHIFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.