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Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire refused to say in a House Intelligence Committee hearing whether he had spoken with President Donald Trump about an explosive whistleblower complaint charging that White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of a call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky in which Trump asked his counterpart to investigate a 2020 political rival.
To Democrats on the committee, the non-answer was a crucial question surrounding the explosive complaint that they are calling a “cover up.” However, the White House has had the upper hand on questions of executive privilege that he cited in declining to answer.
“I speak with him several times throughout the week,” Maguire said when asked whether he had discussed the complaint with the president. “My conversations with the president are privileged and it would be inappropriate to divulge any conversations with the President of the United States.”
House Intelligence Committee Democrats were suspicious that Maguire didn’t answer the question, even going as far as suggesting that the two had spoken about the complaint.
When asked if the president had a conversation with Maguire about the whistleblower, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) told reporters outside the hearing that “common sense would lead you to that conclusion, it sure seemed that way.” He went on, “He seemed pained by the position he was put in.”
“The fact that he would keep avoiding the subject of did he have conversations with President Trump about this complaint leads me to believe that the White House may have instructed to put them to put it on ice,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told reporters of the complaint. “I’m very concerned there was a cover up.”
The whistleblower complaint, and the underlying call between Trump and Zelensky where he asked him to “look into” Biden and dangled the United States’ military aid, will be a central focus of House Democrats’ escalating efforts to impeach the president.
Thus, knowing whether Trump spoke to Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence, about the complaint, would be a significant piece of information. House Democrats tried to get Maguire to answer why he had delayed giving Congress the complaint; he answered that the White House had not instructed him to delay but he was sorting through questions of executive privilege in a complaint he called “totally unprecedented.”
Maguire, interestingly, made an exception to his refusal to discuss his conversations with the president to confirm to the committee that Trump did not ask him about the whistleblower’s identity. (The New York Times has since reported that the whistleblower was a CIA officer detailed to the White House.)
In the complaint, the whistleblower alleged that White House officials tried to “lock down” a word-for-word transcript of the call and move it to a server normally reserved for sensitive classified information, but that the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was a “central figure” in the effort, and Attorney General William Barr “appears involved as well.”
But Democrats did not have a quick way to get Maguire to answer the question. For months, the White House has been refusing to allow current and former officials to testify before their investigative committees under claims of executive privilege.
And even for a former Trump campaign official that did testify, Corey Lewandowski, the White House instructed him not to speak about his conversations with the president, which he agreed to. House Democrats have sued former White House counsel Don McGahn in court for refusing to testify, but the effort has moved relatively slowly.
Democrats insisted that the claim of executive privilege did not have merit.
“The White House knows that there’s not any claim of executive privilege,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told Fortune. But, he added that the route of trying to take officials to court was over now that they had notes of a call released by the White House. “We’re largely done with the courts.”
Despite not having a quick remedy to get an answer on whether Trump spoke with Maguire about the whistleblower complaint, Democrats still wanted one, in what amounted to the first hearing touching on the call since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the full House was moving towards an impeachment inquiry on September 23.
“I think that’s something that we’re ultimately going to need to know,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), of whether Trump spoke with Maguire about the whistleblower. “I think he needs to be able to answer that question, what the president knew, particularly because if you look at the complaint, because many people in the White House knew about the White House’s abuse of power.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—A running list of questions on the impeachment inquiry, answered
—5 allegations made in the declassified whistleblower complaint
—What is CrowdStrike? Trump mentioned the company in his Ukraine call
—These are the key players in the Trump impeachment inquiry
—How impeachment momentum massively shifted among democrats
—The 25 most powerful women in politics
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