WASHINGTON - House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., warned of possible legal action Thursday if intelligence officials did not share a potentially explosive whistleblower complaint prompted by President Donald Trump's interactions with a foreign leader.
Schiff called acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire's refusal to share the complaint with Congress "unprecedented" and said he understood the Justice Department was involved in that decision.
"We cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress," Schiff said, adding: "We're determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected."
Someone, Schiff said, "is trying to manipulate the system to keep information about an urgent matter from the Congress. ... There certainly are a lot of indications that it was someone at a higher pay grade than the director of national intelligence."
As The Washington Post first reported Wednesday, Trump's interactions with the foreign leader included a "promise" that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an unidentified U.S. intelligence official to file a whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community.
Trump has denied doing anything improper.
Schiff spoke following a closed-door appearance before committee members by the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who reviewed the complaint and determined it was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of "urgent concern," a legal threshold that requires notification of congressional oversight committees.
It was not a single conversation that prompted the whistleblower complaint, Atkinson told the committee, according to two people familiar with the inspector general's remarks to lawmakers Thursday. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of the private meeting.
During the meeting, Atkinson declined to provide any additional details about the whistleblower complaint, Schiff said. The congressman said he does not know if reports by The Post and other media outlets about its contents are accurate.
Maguire's refusal to share the complaint has touched off a legal and political dispute that has spilled into public view and prompted speculation that the spy chief may be improperly protecting the president.
"We are exploring with the House general counsel what our options are," Schiff said. "I would imagine if it comes down that we have to go to court to get this that we will have a very good case to seek a temporary restraining order or a mandamus or some urgent form of relief because the inspector general has said this cannot wait. . . . There's an urgency here that I think the courts will recognize."
Schiff said Maguire is scheduled to appear before his committee in a public session next week and "he can explain why this urgent concern should not be shared with the Congress."
Schiff spoke to reporters after Trump disputed the report that his interaction with a foreign leader had prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a whistleblower complaint, saying it was inconceivable that he would say anything inappropriate.
"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," Trump wrote on Twitter. "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!"
Trump dismissed the report as "Fake News" and said in another tweet that he was subject to "Presidential Harassment!"
If Schiff opts to go to court, Democrats say their case will be buoyed by Atkinson's determination that the whistleblower's complaint was "urgent" and the lengths to which he went to alert the Intelligence Committee of its existence - writing letters in which he questioned Maguire's determination to withhold the complaint from lawmakers.
"I understand that I am bound by the determination reached as a result of the Acting DNI's consultations with DOJ, and the ICIG will continue to abide by that determination," Atkinson wrote Tuesday in a letter to panel leaders. ICIG stands for intelligence community inspector general.
"I, nevertheless, respectfully disagree with that determination," he continued. "The subject matter involved in the Complainant's disclosure not only falls within the DNI's jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI's responsibilities to the American people.
Atkinson faulted the Justice Department's conclusion "particularly . . . and the Acting DNI's apparent agreement with the conclusion, that the disclosure in this case does not concern an intelligence activity within the DNI's authority." He wrote, too, that he had requested permission from Maguire to inform the congressional intelligence committees about the general subject matter of the complaint, but was denied.
Atkinson concluded that Maguire's wholesale opposition to disclosing the details of the complaint to Congress not only marked a sharp departure from past practice, but also "may itself constitute a significant problem and deficiency concerning the DNI's responsibility and authority relating to intelligence programs or activities."
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department responded to Atkinson's charge by pointing to a Sept. 13 letter from Maguire's general counsel, Jason Klitenic, to the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees, explaining the administration's rationale for not providing the complaint to lawmakers.
In that letter, Klitenic argued that "there were serious concerns about whether the complaint met the statutory definition of an 'urgent concern.' " Those concerns, he explained, led to consultation with the Justice Department.
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The Washington Post’s Shane Harris, Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.