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 BurrTrump asserts his power over Republicans FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Rubio: Coronavirus conspiracy theories could be used in foreign election misinformation campaigns 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 TrumpFauci says his meetings with Trump have 'dramatically decreased' McEnany criticizes DC mayor for not imposing earlier curfew amid protests Stopping Israel's annexation is a US national security interest 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 CornynGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight 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 RubioThis week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic Trump asserts his power over Republicans National security adviser says foreign powers trying to exploit US race relations 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 SchiffFlynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers 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 BluntWashington prepares for a summer without interns GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill Senators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day 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 MaguireTop intel official leaving post Grenell announces creation of intelligence community 'cyber executive' Ratcliffe refuses to say whether Russian election interference favored Trump 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 GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic Trump asserts his power over Republicans 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 GiulianiSunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Moussaoui says he now renounces terrorism, bin Laden Democrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo 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 WarnerTrump asserts his power over Republicans Expanding tax credit for businesses retaining workers gains bipartisan support Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks 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.”