The nation's top intelligence official is expected to face fierce interrogation from concerned lawmakers on Thursday morning over his decision to withhold a whistleblower's complaint about a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's leader that has prompted congressional Democrats to open a formal impeachment inquiry.
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, will be testifying before the Democratic-led House Intelligence Committee to discuss the complaint, which was provided to certain lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon. His appearance on Capitol Hill is the latest flash point in an extraordinary series of events over the past two weeks which have precipitated a constitutional clash between the White House and the Democratic-controlled House.
On Wednesday, Democrats renewed their calls for an investigation into Mr. Trump's actions after a memorandum detailed how the president repeatedly pressured his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and his son, Hunter, during a call in late July.
According to a summary of the call released by the White House, Mr. Trump on several occasions offered the U.S. government's help in any probe into Biden and his son, who used to sit on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm. Mr. Trump also urged Zelensky to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr on the matter.
The Justice Department, which received the whistleblower complaint from Maguire, maintained on Wednesday that Barr had not worked with the president or Giuliani on contacting the Ukrainian government about a possible investigation into the Biden family. The department also said it determined that the actions denounced by the whistleblower in the complaint did not amount to a violation of campaign finance violation by the president.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has continued his steadfast denial of any wrongdoing, resurfacing unsubstantiated allegations about the Biden family.
"They're getting hit hard on this witch hunt because when they look at the information, it's a joke. Impeachment for that?" Mr. Trump said on the sidelines at the United Nation annual General Assembly.
Why did it take so long for Congress to see the complaint?
The unidentified whistleblower filed the complaint with the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, on August 12. Federal law stipulates that the inspector general must investigate any report of an "urgent concern" by an employee of the intelligence community and determine whether it "appears credible" within two weeks. If it is, the inspector general must then report it to the director of national intelligence, whose office is responsible for overseeing the nation's 17 intelligence agencies.
The inspector general investigated the complaint and deemed it credible, forwarding it to the acting director as required, according to a letter from the inspector general released by Schiff.
Once the director receives the report, the law states he or she "shall, within 7 calendar days of such receipt, forward such transmittal to the congressional intelligence committees."
But Maguire initially refused to share the complaint with Congress. The general counsel for Maguire's office said last week it had consulted with the Justice Department and determined the complaint did not rise to the level of an "urgent concern" requiring congressional notification. The relevant federal statute defines "urgent concern" as "a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, violation of law or Executive order, or deficiency" related to an "intelligence activity."
"The complaint forwarded to the [inspector general] does not meet the definition of 'urgent concern,'" general counsel Jason Klitenic wrote in a letter to Schiff on Tuesday. "This complaint ... concerned conduct by someone outside the Intelligence Community and did not relate to any 'intelligence activity' under the DNI's supervision."
The committee only became aware of the whistleblower complaint when the inspector general wrote to Schiff on September 9 to inform him of Maguire's decision not to provide it to Congress.
Maguire eventually relented after the Senate voted unanimously to demand the document, with the House poised to do the same. Lawmakers got their first look at the complaint on Wednesday.
What did Trump tell the Ukrainian president during their call?
In his more than 30-minute call with Zelensky, Mr. Trump started with congratulatory remarks but soon turned his attention to requests he had for his Ukrainian counterpart, according to the summary released Wednesday.
At one point during the call, according to the White House summary, Zelensky mentioned his interest in buying more anti-tank missiles from the U.S. so his government could counter the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
"I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot," Mr. Trump responded.
The president proceeded to urge Zelensky to look into the U.S. cyber security firm CrowdStrike, which is at the center of an uncorroborated allegation that Ukraine played a role in the emails that were stolen from Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign. Mr. Trump also said he wanted to connect Barr with Zelensky and denounced Robert Mueller's two-year investigation as an "incompetent performance."
Zelensky said he would open a "new page" in U.S.-Ukrainian relations, telling Mr. Trump that he was committed to meeting with Giuliani.
After reiterating his desire that Zelensky communicate with both Barr and Giuliani, Mr. Trump brought up Biden's efforts during the Obama administration to push Ukraine to oust its top prosecutor, who was widely accused of turning a blind eye to corruption.
"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great," Mr. Trump said. "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me."
Zelensky appeared to accept Mr. Trump's request.
"Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament, the next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September," Zelensky said. "He or she will look into the situation."
After some subsequent back-and-forth, Mr. Trump again told the Ukrainian leader that he would make sure Barr and Giuliani called him.