The acting national intelligence director repeatedly refused Thursday to tell a House committee whether he talked to President Donald Trump about a whistleblower's claim that Trump pressured Ukraine's leader to investigate Joe Biden in an effort to affect the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Joseph Maguire told several members of the House Intelligence Committee multiple times that his conversations with Trump are "privileged," as he rebuffed questions about whether he and the president have discussed the whistleblower's complaint.
Maguire noted that he is a member of the executive branch of the government and said it "would destroy my relationship with the president in intelligence matters to divulge any of my conversations with the president of the United States."
Maguire told Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., when asked if he was "denying" that he discussed the complaint with the president, "I speak to the president, and anything I say to the president is confidential."
The complaint was turned over to Congress on Wednesday, and a redacted version was publicly released Thursday morning after weeks of stonewalling by the Trump administration.
House Democrats on Tuesday launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump. The inquiry addresses concerns Trump had leaned on Ukraine's president in a July 25 phone call and other times to investigate Biden, the former vice president, and his son Hunter, in order to harm Biden's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hunter Biden previously served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
The whistleblower's complaint includes allegations that White House lawyers took unusual steps to have a transcript of Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president removed from one electronic system and placed on another one that he used "to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature."
Maguire was on the hot seat before the Intelligence Committee because of concerns by Democratic members that he had failed to comply with the law by not turning over that complaint to the committee by a statutory deadline.
Maguire defended his actions by saying, "I was just trying to work through the law the way it was written." He said he wanted to determine if the complaint had to be disclosed under the law and whether there was a possibility that its release to Congress would be blocked because of a claim that its contents were subject to "executive privilege."
He said he took the complaint to the White House and the Justice Department as part of that review.
"We consulted with the White House Counsel's Office and we were advised that much of the information in the complaint was, in fact, subject to executive privilege," Maguire said.
That explanation was met with dismay by Democrats, who questioned the propriety of asking White House staff whether it would be appropriate to give Congress a complaint about the leader of the White House: Trump.
Another worrisome issue for Democrats was that the Justice Department is headed by Attorney General William Barr, whom the whistleblower had said in the complaint "appears to be involved" in the effort to pressure Ukraine with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
"I believe that everything here in this matter is totally unprecedented," Maguire said, as he explained the delay further.
"And that is why my former directors of national intelligence forwarded [whistleblower complaints] to you, whether or not it met urgent concern or whether it was serious."
"This was different. To me it just seemed prudent to be able to check and ensure as a member of the Executive Branch before I sent it forward," Maguire said.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., raised the question of whether Maguire discussed the complaint with Trump early in Thursday's hearing.
"Did you or your office ever speak to the president of the United States about this complaint?" Himes asked.
"Congressman, I'm the president's intelligence officer. I speak with him several times throughout the week," Maguire answered.
Himes then said, "Sir, let me repeat my question, did you ever speak to the president about this complaint?"
Maguire replied, "My conversations with the president, because I'm the director of national intelligence, are privileged, and it would be inappropriate for me because it would destroy my relationship with the president in intelligence matters to divulge any of my conversations with the president of the United States."
Himes followed up by asking, "But just so we can be clear for the record, you are not denying that you spoke to the president about this complaint?"
Maguire said, "What I'm saying, Congressman, is that I will not divulge privileged conversations that I have as director of national intelligence with the president of the United States."
When Himes asked if the White House had "instructed" Maguire "to assert that privilege?" Maguire said, "No, sir."
As a member of the executive branch, "as a member of the National Security Council," Maguire said, "I just have to maintain the discretion and protect the conversation with the president of the United States."