Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

WASHINGTON — Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire on Thursday defended his decision not to immediately share with Congress an extraordinary complaint by an intelligence community whistleblower alleging that President Donald Trump used his office to solicit interference by a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign.

Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee Thursday over three hours of testimony that he consulted about the complaint with officials at the Justice Department and the White House, but was not able to turn over the document until it was resolved whether it contained material protected by executive privilege.

Democrats hammered the intelligence chief for his decision, arguing that the law explicitly demands that the DNI “shall” transmit whistleblower complaints to the intelligence oversight committees.

Maguire repeatedly stressed that the nature of the complaint, which focused on actions by the president, was extraordinary and presented unique considerations. Much of the complaint rests on a phone call that Trump had on July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he offered U.S. assistance in any investigation of Trump’s political opponents, including the son of former vice president Joe Biden.

Lawmakers questioned why Maguire sought the guidance of executive branch lawyers when the law does not require him to do so.

“I just thought it would be prudent to have another opinion,” Maguire said, noting that when he saw the complaint, he was struck by how much of it focused on Trump’s phone call with a foreign leader.

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Maguire said he first sought guidance from the White House Counsel’s Office and next from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Officials then raised the possibility that the complaint could be covered by executive privilege, but no one reached a definitive ruling on that, Maguire said.

The Office of Legal Counsel also found that the complaint did not meet the statutory definition of an “urgent concern” under the whistleblower law. That was significant, because the law says that such matters are supposed to be turned over to Congress.

The inspector general ultimately informed Congress about the existence of the complaint, but not its substance, a decision that Maguire said he supported.

Democrats pressed Maguire on why he still didn’t go to Congress with a copy of the complaint, given that even matters not deemed an urgent concern have historically been provided to the intelligence committees.

“It was not stonewalling. I was not receiving direction from anybody,” Maguire said. “I have to comply with the way the law is, not the way some people would like it do be.”

Nevertheless, Maguire anticipated that eventually Congress would become aware of the complaint and that he’d have to explain how he handled it.

“I realized full and well the importance of the allegation, and I also have to tell you, congresswoman, I anticipated having to sit in front of some committee, sometime, to discuss it,” he said in reply to a question from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California.

Maguire told members of the committee that he supported the right of the whistleblower, whose complaint helped lead to an impeachment inquiry, to raise concerns with an intelligence community watchdog. He said that he doesn’t know the person’s identity, and that no one in the administration has asked him to find it.

Maguire expressed “my support for the whistleblower,” who he said had followed regular procedures for raising a concern with the inspector general. He said the whistleblower and the inspector general “have acted in good faith throughout. I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and followed the law.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, the committee chairman, strongly questioned Maguire about why he had sought advice from the White House when the president is the subject of the complaint and said the law demanded that Maguire give the complaint to lawmakers.

“When the Congress said that something shall be done, and when that something involves wrongdoing of the president, it is not an exception to the statute,” Schiff said.

Republicans largely focused on questioning the veracity of the whistleblower’s allegations, much of which is secondhand but sourced to U.S. officials.

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s ranking Republican, derided the complaint as “fake news” and accused Democrats and journalists of a conspiracy to gin up baseless allegations against Trump. He called the complaint and media coverage of it an “information warfare operation” against the president.

An unclassified version of the complaint was publicly released shortly before Maguire’s appearance on Capitol Hill.

In his opening remarks, Schiff called the complaint “the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office. Betrayed his oath to defend our national security. And betrayed his oath to defend our Constitution.”

Schiff said that by coming forward, the whistleblower “has shown more dedication to country … than the president himself.”

Maguire had threatened to resign over concerns that the White House might attempt to force him to stonewall Congress when he testified, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The officials said that Maguire, who was thrust into the top intelligence post last month, warned the White House that he was not willing to withhold information from Congress.

Maguire denied that he had contemplated resigning. In a statement, he said that “at no time have I considered resigning my position since assuming this role on Aug. 16, 2019. I have never quit anything in my life, and I am not going to start now. I am committed to leading the Intelligence Community to address the diverse and complex threats facing our nation.”

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On Wednesday, the Trump administration released a memorandum detailing a 30-minute phone call that Trump had with Zelensky. It revealed that Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart to work with Attorney General William Barr to investigate Biden and offered to meet with the foreign leader at the White House after he promised to conduct such an inquiry.

Maguire, a retired admiral and Navy SEAL who previously ran the National Counterterrorism Center, has at times expressed his displeasure with the White House counsel and others that he felt put him in an untenable position — denying material to Congress by relying on a claim that the whistleblower’s complaint didn’t fall within the jurisdiction of the director of the intelligence community, according to current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Officials said that Maguire had been pursuing an opportunity to speak to Congress and defend his actions and integrity.

“I want to make clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” Maguire said in a statement Tuesday evening.

“I am committed to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring every complaint is handled appropriately,” Maguire added. “I look forward to continuing to work with the administration and Congress to find a resolution regarding this important matter.”