Five takeaways from Trump whistleblower hearing

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire’s high-stakes testimony before Congress Thursday was fraught with tense moments as he defended his handling of a whistleblower complaint against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE.

In a rare move, the administration allowed the redacted version of the whistleblower complaint to be released before Maguire began his testimony on why he didn’t provide Congress with the allegations.

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The whistleblower alleged in a nine-page complaint that Trump sought to “solicit interference” from Ukraine in the 2020 election by pressing for an investigation of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE, and that the White House tried to cover up a call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky where officials worried the president used his office for personal political gain.

House Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump on Tuesday, a day before the White House released a readout of the July 25 call. The impeachment furor grew Thursday with the release of the whistleblower account.

Here are five takeaways.

Maguire offers a thorough defense of the whistleblower

Maguire is an appointee of Trump’s, so it was notable that he offered a strong defense of the whistleblower whose account is at the forefront of impeachment calls.

“I think the whistleblower did the right thing,” Maguire said to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House spokesperson: Media's 'obsession' with impeachment 'won't let up' Trump rips Chuck Todd for 'softball' Schiff interview Democrats, Republicans tussle over witnesses as vote approaches MORE (D-Calif.) during public testimony, as Schiff asked whether he viewed the whistleblower as a political hack.

“I believe the whistleblower has followed the statute every step of the way,” Maguire said.

Trump and his allies have sought to demean the whistleblower as someone with partisan aims, seizing on the fact that the individual did not have firsthand knowledge of the phone call with Zelensky. Trump called the whistleblower a “partisan” last week while acknowledging he didn’t know the individual’s identity. 

In an Aug. 26 letter to Maguire that accompanied the complaint, intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who knows the whistleblower’s identity, wrote that his office’s preliminary review of the complaint found “some indicia of an arguable political bias on the part of the Complainant in favor of a rival candidate.”

But Atkinson said in the letter that he still viewed the complaint as credible.

Maguire, who said he does not know the identity of the complainant, expressed his support of the whistleblower allegations as being “credible” and “important” and pledged to protect the person’s anonymity.

Maguire refuses to defend or criticize Trump 

Maguire, a retired Navy vice admiral with a long career in the U.S. military, was exceedingly careful in his comments on the president during the hearing. 

Asked by Schiff at the outset of the hearing if the complaint alleged serious wrongdoing by the president, Maguire said the president had the right to conduct diplomacy as he saw fit, effectively dodging the question.

“The whistleblower complaint involved the allegation of that, but it is not for me in the intelligence community to decide how the president conducts his foreign policy or his interaction with leaders of other countries,” Maguire answered.  

Maguire defended his handling of the complaint, particularly his decision to consult with lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department and to ultimately decide that the complaint did not meet the legal definition of an “urgent concern.” 

But he cast himself as a longtime public servant following the law. “I have to work with what I've got,” Maguire said. 

The hearing is likely to fuel Democrats’ calls for impeachment

Democrats seized on the declassified whistleblower complaint released right before the hearing as further evidence of what they see as an impeachable offense by Trump. 

They highlighted how the complaint alleges that White House officials tried to restrict access to records of Trump’s call with Zelensky, including an allegation that officials removed the transcript from the computer system where it would typically be stored to conceal its existence.

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Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFormer senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Democrats step up pressure over witnesses after Bolton bombshell Texas AFL-CIO endorses Cuellar's primary challenger MORE (D-Calif.) said that the alleged efforts by the White House to “lock down” records of the call amounted to a “cover-up.”

“That's a solicitation by the president of the United States for a foreign leader to interfere in our elections. And then there's an effort to cover up when a whistleblower comes forward with those details. If that doesn't support a further inquiry, I don't know what does,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said after the hearing.

Schiff said that his committee will continue to seek documents and testimony from relevant witnesses, but said that “what is alleged in this whistleblower complaint goes to the very heart of the president's oath of office.”

“It is hard to imagine a more fundamental abuse of that office,” Schiff said.

Few cracks show in GOP unity

While most Republicans sought to undermine Democrats’ claims of wrongdoing by painting the whistleblower hearing as the Russia probe 2.0, a handful GOP members voiced concern about what they had read in the complaint.

Intelligence Committee member Rep. Mike TurnerMichael Ray TurnerCNN analyst says GOP lawmaker 'mansplained' to her on-air Meadows says Republican colleagues 'wrong' for suggesting Trump's phone call was inappropriate Republicans preview impeachment defense strategy MORE (R-Ohio) stated that Trump asking Zelensky to investigate Biden was “disappointing.”

“I've read the complaint and I've read the transcript of the conversation with the president and the president of the Ukraine,” Turner said during the hearing. “Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president: This is not OK. That conversation is not OK. And I think it's disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript.”

Retiring Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdThe Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' House Democrats launch effort to register minority voters in key districts MORE (R-Texas), a former undercover CIA officer, went the furthest in his public remarks, calling for a full investigation into the allegations brought forward by the whistleblower.

“There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter, and the first step is to talk to the whistleblower,” Hurd tweeted shortly after the Maguire hearing began.

Their remarks stood in contrast with other Republicans, such as Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesDemocratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' House Democrats release second batch of Parnas materials Democratic lawmaker says Nunes threatened to sue him over criticism MORE (Calif.), the panel’s ranking member. He began his opening remarks by tearing into Democrats and their “media assets” for drumming up a new “public spectacle” to hurt Trump.

People are going to want to hear more from the whistleblower

Thursday’s developments have increased the appetite for the whistleblower — whose identity remains unknown — to answer questions from lawmakers. 

The House Intelligence Committee is working with the whistleblower’s lawyers and Maguire to allow the whistleblower to speak before the committee. Maguire assured lawmakers during the lengthy hearing that the individual would be able to testify “fully and freely.” 

“I was pleased that the director committed to having the whistleblower come in as soon as the clearance issues are resolved for the whistleblower's counsel,” Schiff told reporters after the hearing. 

“And that we have the commitment of the Director of National Intelligence that they will not be some minder from the White House or the Department of Justice or anywhere else that is instructing him what he can and cannot answer or what she can or cannot answer.” 

Schiff also said the whistleblower’s testimony would help identify “some of these other individuals that can corroborate these deeply troubling allegations.” 

In the complaint, the whistleblower says that “multiple” White House officials with direct knowledge of the call spoke to him or her and detailed the exchange. The complaint also says that roughly a dozen White House officials listened in on the call, and names State Department official Ulrich Brechbuhl as another individual with direct knowledge.