Donald Trump’s promise to a foreign leader so troubled an official in the US intelligence community that it prompted the person to file a whistleblower complaint, according to multiple media reports.
Speculation in Washington was at fever pitch on Thursday over which leader Trump was speaking to and what promise he made. The substance of the complaint remained a mystery.
The intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, determined that the whistleblower’s complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern”, a legal threshold that requires notification of congressional oversight committees.
The complaint’s existence was first reported on Wednesday night by the Washington Post, which said a former official familiar with the matter said the communication it concerned was a phone call.
But further reporting by the New York Times suggested the whistleblower’s intervention was prompted by multiple actions that rather than a single conversation with a foreign leader.
This was apparently corroborated by the Hill website after Atkinson appeared at a closed-door meeting of the House intelligence committee.
Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, told the site: “He didn’t talk about anything about the allegations, where he was very protective. But he did mention that this complaint was based on a series of events, ‘more than one’ to get the exact wordage right.”
Letters from Atkinson to the committee, released on Thursday, said it was an “urgent” matter of “serious or flagrant abuse” that must be shared with members of Congress. But concerns grew on Capitol Hill that intelligence officials were striving to shield Trump from damaging revelations.
Last month the president named Joseph Maguire, a former navy official, as acting director of national intelligence after the departure of Dan Coats, who often clashed with Trump, and the retirement of Sue Gordon, a career professional in the number two position.
Now Maguire is refusing to share details about the whistleblower complaint with the House intelligence committee, asserting that its subject is beyond his jurisdiction.
The committee chairman, Democrat Adam Schiff, said this was an unprecedented departure from the law. “There is an effort to prevent this information from getting to Congress,” he told reporters.
Schiff added that Maguire, in a further departure from standard procedure, consulted with the justice department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress. It is not clear whether the White House was also involved, he said.
Since the director is claiming privileged information, Schiff said he believes the whistleblower’s complaint “likely involves the president or people around him”. The chairman said he would go to court, if necessary, to try to force the administration to turn over the information in the complaint.
Jim Himes, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, told the MSNBC network that Maguire “broke the law when he decided to basically intercept the inspector general’s report to Congress”.
He added this has “never been done before in the history of inspector general reports to the Congress, and the American people should be worried about that”.
On Thursday Trump lashed out at the initial Washington Post report. “Another Fake News story out there – It never ends!” he wrote on Twitter. “Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!”
He added: “…Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!”
Maguire has been subpoenaed by the House intelligence committee and is expected to testify publicly about the whistleblower complaint next Thursday. Both Maguire and Atkins are also expected next week at the Senate intelligence committee.
The Trump administration has cut back on its predecessors’ longtime practice of issuing summaries of the president’s conversations with world leaders.
Trump reportedly spoke with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, in the weeks before the complaint was filed.
The Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe voiced concern in a post on Twitter that the action by Trump could be a breach of national security.
The complaint was filed with Atkinson’s office on 12 August, when a Trump was at his golf resort in New Jersey, , the Post reports.
Jon Cooper, a former aide to Barack Obama and prominent New York Democrat, speculated on Thursday that if the vice-president, Mike Pence, was aware of what had happened and, if it was serious, had not raised the alarm, it could spell trouble for him.
The California Democratic congressman Ted Lieu said on Twitter that intelligence officers must have been “freaked out” by Trump’s conduct, raised the alarm and alerted the press.