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Senate Republicans divided over whether whistleblower should testify

Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee are divided over whether they need to hear from the whistleblower at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.

While the House Intelligence Committee has been leading high-profile, near-daily depositions with former and current administration officials, the Senate panel is quietly investigating the whistleblower process and how the complaint was handled.

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But the GOP senators on the committee are split over whether the whistleblower who filed the complaint, which the intelligence community inspector general deemed an “urgent concern,” needs to meet with lawmakers behind closed doors.

Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? MORE (R-N.C.) told The Hill last week he “absolutely” wants to hear from the whistleblower, arguing the individual is a crucial part of understanding the process behind the complaint.

“If we want to understand fully what happened, then talking to that individual, talking to their lawyers —when they started to guide their interactions, who they interacted with — may be more expansive than what we know,” Burr said. "We don't know until we talk to the whistleblower."

The Senate’s focus on process comes as the House investigation — which centers on the substance of the whistleblower complaint and whether President TrumpDonald TrumpMaria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back Republicans eye Nashville crack-up to gain House seat MORE predicated aid to Ukraine on the country opening an investigation into former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter Biden — has provided a constant drip of headline-dominating news stories.

In some cases, the House depositions and news emerging from them, have gone further than the confines of the initial whistleblower complaint that spurred the impeachment inquiry.

Some Senate GOP committee members say that dynamic has clouded the need for the whistleblower to come before their panel.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBlack lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory The Senate is where dreams go to die Federal government to observe Juneteenth holiday on Friday MORE (R-Texas), when asked last week if he wanted to talk to the whistleblower, argued that House investigation and public reporting involving the details of the complaint has superseded that need.

“I think we’ve moved well beyond that,” he said. “I mean, what’s the whistleblower going to tell us other than what we already know?”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio calls on Biden to allow Naval Academy graduate to play in NFL Florida governor adept student of Trump playbook White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE (R-Fla.) added that he wasn’t sure if the panel was going to talk to the whistleblower, and he questioned the value of receiving any testimony from the individual.

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“I’m not sure how relevant it remains at this point,” Rubio said. “There’s people claiming to have first-hand information” of Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Attorneys for the individual wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month that they had made offers to both Intelligence committees that their client was willing to provide written answers under oath.

Mark Zaid, one of the whistleblower's attorneys, tweeted Sunday that his legal team has offered Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee lawmakers a chance to interrogate his client through writing, but he said the questions "cannot seek identifying info."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight Schiff calls Iranian presidential election 'predetermined' Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (D-Calif.) has suggested the whistleblower does not need to appear in person for the impeachment inquiry, in part to protect the individual’s identity.

Burr said last week that such an offer for written answers was “not acceptable,” adding that his committee was more than capable of ensuring anonymity.

“We have a proven track record of protecting people's identity,” Burr said, noting that certain names from the panel’s Russia investigation were not publicly revealed.

There has been no further communication between the Senate panel and the whistleblower’s layers during the past week, sources familiar with the discussions told The Hill on Friday.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntCongress barrels toward debt cliff Excellence Act will expand mental health and substance use treatment access to millions Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 MORE (R-Mo.), a member of both GOP leadership and the Intelligence panel, added last week that he, Burr and “others on the committee” wanted the whistleblower to come before the panel.

“It does seem to me that establishing a precedent that a whistleblower who has second- or third-hand information can come forward with that information with no real likelihood that you’ll ever even know who they are, it is more an anonymous suggestion box," Blunt said.

He noted that while he wants the whistleblower to meet with the committee, “there may be a way that they could appear with some substantial level of anonymity.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is more than a month into its investigation, including closed-door briefings with acting director of national intelligence Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireJudge dismisses Nunes's defamation suit against Washington Post Retired Navy admiral behind bin Laden raid says he voted for Biden Congressional Democrats request FBI briefing on foreign election interference efforts MORE and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community.

The handling of the whistleblower complaint within the administration has sparked a clash, with dozens of watchdogs and the intelligence community inspector general (IG) on one side and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on the other.

Nearly 70 inspectors general, including Justice Department IG Michael Horowitz, sent a letter to the Office of Legal Counsel disagreeing with its stance that the whistleblower complaint wasn't an "urgent concern," and warned the office that its memo would have “chilling effect” on future whistleblowers.

The back-and-forth over whether the individual should testify comes at a contentious moment for the person behind the complaint.

Trump and some of his allies on Capitol Hill are pushing to expose their identity, arguing the president should be able to face his accuser.

Trump on Sunday called on the media to unmask the whistleblower.

"They know who it is. You know who it is. You just don't want to report it. CNN knows who it is, but you don't want to report it. And you know, you would be doing the public a service if you did," Trump told reporters.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBiden to host Afghan president at White House on Friday Portman: Republicans are 'absolutely' committed to bipartisan infrastructure bill Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight MORE (R-S.C.), a vocal Trump ally, argued last week that it was "ridiculous" to let the whistleblower remain anonymous. 

“I think the whistleblower statute was designed to deal with public corruption and let people come forward. It's not designed to put somebody in jail or take down a president,” Graham said. “So this idea that somebody can make an anonymous accusation ... that is the foundation of impeachment and remain anonymous is ridiculous.”

Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, once threatened to investigate “all things Ukraine,” including having Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiThe wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms Court sets Smartmatic dismissal date on Giuliani, Bartiromo, others Ukraine sanctions two businessmen tied to Giuliani MORE, Trump’s personal lawyer, testify before his panel about allegations of corruption.

But Graham has since decided to step back and let the Intelligence Committee take the lead.

"What I'm trying to do now, quite frankly, is just calm things now. Let the Senate Intel Committee — they were given this task not me, you know those two guys have worked pretty well together — let the Senate do its thing," Graham said.

The Intelligence Committee is no stranger to conducting high-profile investigations during the Trump administration. The committee ran a two-year probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference; it’s still wrapping up the public reports on its findings.

And unlike the House Intelligence Committee, which devolved into rounds of partisan fighting during its election interference probe, or the current impeachment inquiry, which has sparked weeks of partisan posturing, the Senate panel is known for the ability of its leaders — Burr and Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting On The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination MORE (D-Va.) — to work on a bipartisan basis.

“A committee like ours deals with covert realities all the time. And unlike the House Intelligence Committee that may never recover from the politicalization of the committee, we don’t have that problem,” Blunt said. “And this is an issue we’ve been given, and I think we have some responsibility to have an understanding of who the source is.”