Rumours over Trump’s reported promise to foreign leader mounts as his personal lawyer appears to admit to pressing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden
Speculation in Washington was at fever pitch on Thursday over reports Donald Trump’s promise to a foreign leader so troubled a US intelligence official that it prompted a whistleblower complaint, with the focus now shifting to Ukraine.
The whistleblower’s claim centered on Russia’s neighbour, according to reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, noting that the complaint was filed weeks before Trump spoke to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
In a testy interview on CNN on Thursday night, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, offered conflicting answers to questions on whether he had asked Ukraine to investigate the former vice-president, and 2020 presidential hopeful, Joe Biden. At one point he dismissed the claim as ridiculous before admitting it and saying he was proud of it.
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.
But further reporting by the New York Times, which also reported a possible connection to Ukraine, suggested the whistleblower’s intervention was prompted by multiple actions rather than a single conversation with a foreign leader.
Earlier this year Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, canceled a trip to Ukraine over a perceived conflict of interest between his ties to the White House and his apparent partisan political mission to dig for dirt against Biden, whose son once had a role in a Ukrainian gas company.
After the news of a whistleblower alarmed at Trump’s “promise” emerged, Giuliani sent a cryptic tweet about defending “yourself from big fat bullies”.
In a closed-door meeting of the House intelligence committee, Atkinson, the inspector general, said the investigation touched on multiple contacts Trump had with his opposite parties.
Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, said, according to the Hill: “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 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.