From left, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., rear, and Rep. Eric...
J. Scott Applewhite

Trump admin faces subpoena over ‘urgent’ whistleblower complaint

Updated

Once in a while, important news breaks late on a Friday night. Take this report from the Wall Street Journal, for example, which reached the public at 11:03 pm (ET).

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff issued a subpoena to the nation’s top intelligence official Friday night, seeking to force him to turn over a whistleblower complaint that the intelligence community’s inspector general has allegedly deemed a matter of “urgent concern.”

The identity of the whistleblower and the nature of the complaint weren’t revealed. But in a news release Friday night, Mr. Schiff (D., Calif.) said the inspector general had determined the complaint to be credible and notified his House committee of the matter on Monday.

Not surprisingly given the circumstances, many of the relevant details aren’t yet available to the public, but we have a rough sketch to go on. We know the Intelligence Community Inspector General’s office is aware of a whistleblower complaint that it determined to be credible and a matter of “urgent concern.” We know that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asked Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to provide the committee with the information.

And we know that Maguire declined to cooperate with the congressional request.

I think it’s fair to say Schiff wasn’t pleased with the response. The California Democrat subpoenaed the materials, demanding the full and unredacted record, and directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to provide information on possible communications with other offices within the executive branch (cough, West Wing, cough) about the controversy.

The House Intelligence Committee chairman also reminded Maguire in writing, “As Acting Director of National Intelligence, you have neither the legal authority nor the discretion to overrule a determination by the IC IG. Moreover, you do not possess the authority to withhold from the Committee a whistleblower disclosure from within the Intelligence Community that is intended for Congress.”

Schiff added, “Your office, moreover, has refused to affirm or deny that officials or lawyers at the White House have been involved in your decision to withhold the complaint from the Committee…. The Committee can only conclude, based on this remarkable confluence of factors, that the serious misconduct at issue involves the President of the United States and/or other senior White House or Administration officials.”

The committee chairman also appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday, and host Margaret Brennan asked if he’d received a response. It led to an interesting exchange:

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: We’ve gotten a response and the director has said, essentially, that he is answering to a higher authority and refusing to turn over the whistleblower complaint. This is deeply troubling. No director–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just ignoring the subpoena?

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: Well, at this point, yes. Ignoring the subpoena, ignoring our request. No DNI– no director of National Intelligence has ever refused to turn over a whistleblower complaint. And here, Margaret, the significance is the inspector general found this complaint to be urgent, found it to be credible, that is they did some preliminary investigation, found the whistleblower to be credible, that suggests corroboration. And that it involved serious or flagrant wrongdoing. And according to the director of National Intelligence, the reason he is not acting to provide it, even though the statute mandates that he do so, is because he is being instructed not to. That this involved a higher authority, someone above the DNI.

In case this isn’t painfully obvious, the director of National Intelligence only reports to one person: the one who sits in the Oval Office.

Again, we don’t yet have a clear sense of the nature of the whistleblower complaint, so I won’t speculate. That said, we know it comes from the intelligence community; there appears to be reason to consider the complaint credible; and the Trump administration appears to be hiding it from Congress as part of an unprecedented and legally dubious move.

And if Donald Trump or his team were involved in ordering the DNI to withhold the whistleblower complaint, it raises the potential of a very serious scandal.

As the process moves forward, Joseph Maguire and others are going to argue that the whistleblower complaint from within the intelligence community includes sensitive and confidential information, which must be handled with care. But that’s not an excuse for secrecy: the House Intelligence Committee, as part of its oversight responsibilities, handles sensitive and confidential information all the time.

That’s not a justification for secrecy; it’s a sad and unsustainable excuse.