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 BurrJuan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump Hillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech 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 John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' 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 CornynDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Cornyn disputes GAO report on withholding of Ukraine aid: It's 'certainly not a crime' 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 RubioApple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Surging Sanders draws fresh scrutiny ahead of debate 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 SchiffWhite House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Trump knocks authors of 'A Very Stable Genius': 'Two stone cold losers from Amazon WP' Democrats push back on White House impeachment claims, saying Trump believes he is above the law 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 BluntSenate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Biden calls for revoking key online legal protection GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff 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 MaguireThe Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Schiff schedules public hearing with US intel chief  Democrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim 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 GrahamWhite House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team Hypocrisy is the currency of the realm for GOP in the age of Trump Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown 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 GiulianiParnas attorney asks William Barr to recuse himself from investigation Poll: 51 percent of Americans say Senate should convict and remove Trump Hypocrisy is the currency of the realm for GOP in the age of Trump 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 WarnerHillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Sen. Warner calls on State Department to take measures to protect against cyberattacks 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.”