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Until whistleblower complaint is revealed, ‘we’re at risk,’ says Rep. Schiff

A whistleblower complaint dubbed a matter of "urgent concern" by the intelligence community’s inspector general may involve a communication between President Trump and a foreign leader, according to reports. Now, a standoff is ensuing between the White House and Congress over access to the details. California Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We return now to our top story, the escalating standoff between Congress and the Trump administration over a whistle-blower's complaint.

    That complaint was deemed an urgent concern by the intelligence community's inspector general, Michael Atkinson. Atkinson met with the House Intelligence Committee this morning behind closed doors.

    And the chairman of that committee, Representative Adam Schiff, joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    Congressman, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You spent almost four hours with Mr. Atkinson behind closed doors today. What did you learn today that led you to believe you urgently need more information about that complaint?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Well, there doesn't seem to be any dispute over the fact that this complaint is urgent and it's credible. That is apparently not the basis in which it's being withheld from us, rather because the Department of Justice weighing in with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

    That director is depriving us of the complaint because he says it's beyond his jurisdiction. That means that this urgent matter is going unaddressed. It also means that someone is giving these marching orders to the director.

    We want to find out, is the White House involved in that? We need to know, frankly, whether the White House is also a subject of this complaint, because the idea that someone could weigh in who's the subject of the complaint and essentially quash it would cause, I think, the whistle-blower statute to be meaningless.

    And there are two imperatives here. One is to find out information necessary to protect the country, and the second is, we need to protect both the whistle-blower and the whole process of being able to blow the whistle on impropriety.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Congressman, I want to be clear, though. In those nearly four hour today with Mr. Atkinson, you got answers to none of those questions you just laid out for us?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    No, we got answers to a great many questions.

    We got answers to the fact that this is, for example, the first time that a director of national intelligence has ever withheld a complaint from Congress. Whether the inspector general finds it credible or not credible, the practice has always been to provide it to Congress.

    Here, it was found to be credible, it was found to be urgent. And it is unprecedented to be deprived this way.

    It was also clear from the testimony that the Department of Justice has weighed in in a way that it never has before in a whistle-blower complaint. It's also clear, I think, that the issue is not the classification of the intelligence. Many people have said, well, other presidents have asserted that they have the right to declassify intelligence or provide classified information to the Congress.

    That's apparently not the issue either. And so the question is, why is this being withheld from Congress? Is this an effort to cover up impropriety? Who does the complaint involve?

    And, most seriously, if this is urgent, and they're not allowing Congress to deal with it, and they're not allowing the inspector general to deal with it, then it's going unaddressed and we're at risk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Congressman, if it's not related to declassification of information, some reports, as I'm sure you have seen, say that the complaint is related to a series of actions, not any single discussion, as was earlier reported.

    Is that your understanding?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    I don't know what the complaint has to say in terms of its specifics. So I can't answer that question.

    But I can tell you that the speculation about whether this involves a presidential communication, even if it involved a presidential communication — and I don't know at this point — that doesn't mean that the privilege covers it, if that communication is about a crime or fraud.

    The president doesn't have the privilege to be corrupt. No one in the administration has the privilege to be corrupt. And the privilege always gives way if it is about evidence of corruption.

    So it is not as simple as saying, well, if it involves a communication, then they have a right to withhold it. We have seen time and time again, on the issue of privilege, the administration make claims of privilege merely to deny Congress information where no privilege could apply.

    So, at the end of the day, we're going to need to get this complaint. And we are going to get this complaint. And we will, I think, expose those who are trying to stand in the way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, sir, after the briefing today, you said that you knew other institutions were involved in keeping you from getting that complaint. Do that you know the White House is involved?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    We know that the Department of Justice is involved in trying to prevent us from getting this complaint, and we know Bill Barr's history at the Justice Department of viewing his role as essentially a defense lawyer for the president.

    In terms of the White House involvement, we don't have that confirmed, I think, from the inspector general, who isn't able to speak to that, isn't authorized to speak to that.

    But we do know from the communication we received from the director of national intelligence that they're claiming that some privilege may apply. Well, there's a narrow category of people, the president and people around him, that would even hold the prospect of a potential privilege.

    So I think the DNI has pointed where the problem lies, even if that wasn't his intention.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's been reported Mr. Atkinson didn't disclose whether the complaint does involve the president.

    Do you believe that it does, though?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Well, it certainly seems that it involves someone at a higher pay grade than the DNI.

    If the DNI is going to take the position, this is beyond my jurisdiction, and the inspector general has told us this is squarely within the responsibilities of the DNI, it means there's a higher authority.

    And there aren't many people in a position to give orders of direction to the leader of the intelligence community. So there's certainly a lot of indications, but we don't have confirmation of that.

    We also don't know whether this is a situation where the subject of the complaint has actually been given the complaint. And, of course, that heightens the concern that evidence may be destroyed or covered up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sir, very briefly, that DNI, Joseph Maguire, will be testifying before you next week.

    What is it that you hope to learn from him then?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Well, we want to call on him to explain the American people why he is the first director of national intelligence to ever withhold a whistle-blower complaint from Congress, and how the whistle-blower process can possibly work if there's a situation where the subject of a complaint — and maybe he will tell us whether this is the case or not — is, in effect, vetoing Congress' access to that information.

    I will — I would hope, between now and then, that the DNI will reconsider his decision and provide this information to Congress. But, if not, he's going to owe the American people an explanation.

    And at the end of the day, the only thing we will be satisfied with is the provision of that complaint, and that the DNI meet his other responsibility, which is to tell the whistle-blower how they can come directly to Congress. That's what the statute provides

    And, thus far, he has been unwilling to follow the statute.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

    Thank you, sir.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Thank you.

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