House Intel Begins Hearing With Acting DNI On Whistleblower Complaint

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 10:42 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The House intelligence committee has released the whistleblower complaint that's at the center of an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. Today - in fact, right now as we speak - the House and Senate are going to hear from the acting director of national intelligence about his handling of this complaint. All right. Joining me to talk some of this through, White House correspondent Tamara Keith and Tim Mak, who covers national security. Hello to you both.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: OK, so first Tim, to you. This whistleblower complaint was just released within about the last half-hour, everybody frantically reading it. What have we learned that is new in this complaint?

MAK: Well, the whistleblower says that he or she has information that the president of the United States is, quote, "using the power of his office to solicit information from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election." And it only gets more dramatic from there - that the whistleblower said that he or she was fulfilling his or her duty to report this information, and that White House officials who had been on this July call to the president of Ukraine were "deeply disturbed" - quote-unquote - "deeply disturbed" by this phone call, because they thought that they had witnessed the president abuse his power for political gain.

What's really interesting is the whistleblower also reports that White House officials had intervened to, quote-unquote, "lock down" records of this phone call between President Trump and the leader of Ukraine, and that that transcript was loaded onto a system used to handle especially sensitive classified information about covert action at intelligence activities, not for things that are politically sensitive.

And the one really big point kind of buried in the appendix of this complaint is that this may not have been the first time where a presidential transcript was placed into this code word-level, top-secret system solely for the purpose of quote, "protecting politically sensitive information."

KING: OK, so there's a lot there. Let's walk through a little bit of it a little bit at a time because of one of the things that's really interesting is that this whistleblower complaint - and again, of course, we don't know who the whistleblower is - but the whistleblower is acting as kind of a reporter, as you point out. He or she says over the past four months, more than a half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort, to this - the phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president and everything that followed therein. So these are numerous people who have made these complaints, yeah?

MAK: Right, the whistleblower does not view this as a situation where he or she is alone. The whistleblower cites more than a half-dozen officials who have talked to him or her and provided him or her with this information. Now, we don't know if the whistleblower actively sought to report this out or investigate this or whether, in the course of his or her duties, this kind of information crosses their desk.

So it's too early to say that this person went out of their way to find this information, but we can say that this whistleblower believes and has had many conversations - at least a series of conversations - with other officials who are both deeply disturbed and have more direct knowledge or access to documents relating to this incident and this scandal.

KING: OK, and then we also know that after the phone call on July 25 between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, some officials from the State Department - is it? - show up in Ukraine. Can you tell us what happened there a day after this phone call?

MAK: Well, we're still absorbing a lot of this. But basically, the whistleblower complaint talks about how State Department officials and Rudy Giuliani apparently followed up on the phone call that President Trump had with the president of Ukraine, as if to kind of press them or help try to facilitate the request made by President Trump in that phone call. Which, to remind our listeners, was to begin an investigation or look into the activities of Joe Biden and his family.

KING: OK, I want to bring in NPR's Tamara Keith with the simple question. Tam, this morning, what is the White House saying?

MAK: Well, so what is interesting about this is that the White House has very quickly come out with a statement in response to this, whereas yesterday there were some tweets but - and the president spoke a few times - but this is a very quick response from Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, and I'm just going to read it here.

She says, (reading) nothing has changed with the release of this complaint, which is nothing more than a collection of thirdhand accounts of events and cobbled together press clippings, all of which show nothing improper. The president took the extraordinary transparent steps of releasing the full unredacted and declassified transcripts of his call with President Zelenskiy, which forms the heart of the complaint, as well as the complaint itself. That is because he has nothing to hide.

They also call this false hysteria. It is a remarkable thing because the White House says, here, look at this call. There's nothing to hide. And like every Democrat that looks at it and many Republicans who have looked at it, have said, oh, gosh, there's a lot here.

KING: It looks like there may have been some things, and also, as the whistleblowers complaint points out, it seems as if a transcript of this call was put under lockdown. Now let me ask you, Tim. We know that the House and Senate are going to hear today soon, if he's not testifying already, and he is...

KEITH: He is testifying already.

KING: ...From the acting director of national intelligence about how he handled this complaint. In some opening remarks before this hearing, Adam Schiff, who's the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: It would be funny if it wasn't such a graphic portrayal of the president's oath of office. But as it does represent a real betrayal, there is nothing the president says here that is in America's interest, after all. It is instead the most consequential form of tragedy, for it forces us to confront the remedy the founders provided for such a flagrant abuse of office - impeachment.

KING: All right, so Adam Schiff obviously holding nothing back. What are we expecting to hear, what can we expect to hear from the director of national intelligence today?

KEITH: Well, he is going to be explaining why it is that this was held back. And he is likely to be pressed at length about just how abnormal that call was. He's likely to be pressed on many things that he's not going to want to answer.

One question that, as Tim mentioned - and I don't know if we'll get a lot of clarity on this from this hearing, and I'm trying to get clarity from the White House - but why, if the whistleblower's complaint is accurate, why was this transcript - and some other transcripts - why were they treated differently? Why were they squirreled away in this super-secret system?

One question that I have is, you know, remember early in the Trump administration, a couple of transcripts leaked out from a call of Mexico and Australia. And they were embarrassing. And after that, the White House sort of went looking for leaks and tried to put things on lockdown. Was this part of this, or was that even beyond that level of lockdown? We don't know. But the way it is described, a White House official said, well, it does look nefarious. We need to get to the bottom of whether that is different or not different.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith covers the White House, Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

KING: And thank you also to NPR's Tim Mak, who covers national security. Thanks, Tim.

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