Schiff, House Intel chairman, got early warning of whistleblower’s accusations

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019. Schiff learned about the outlines of a CIA officer’s concerns that President Donald Trump had abused his power days before the officer filed a whistleblower complaint, according to a spokesman and current and former American officials.

Washington • The Democratic head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, learned about the outlines of a CIA officer’s concerns that President Donald Trump had abused his power days before the officer filed a whistleblower complaint, according to a spokesman and current and former American officials.

The early account by the future whistleblower shows how determined he was to make known his allegations that Trump asked Ukraine’s government to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election. It also explains how Schiff knew to press for the complaint when the Trump administration initially blocked lawmakers from seeing it.

The CIA officer approached a House Intelligence Committee aide with his concerns about Trump only after he had had a colleague first convey them to the CIA’s top lawyer. Concerned about how that initial avenue for airing his allegations through the CIA was unfolding, the officer then approached the House aide. In both cases, the original accusation was vague.

The House staff member, following the committee’s procedures, suggested the officer find a lawyer to advise him and meet with an inspector general, with whom he could file a whistleblower complaint. The aide shared some of what the officer conveyed to Schiff. The aide did not share the whistleblower’s identity with Schiff, an official said.

“Like other whistleblowers have done before and since under Republican and Democratic-controlled committees, the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance on how to report possible wrongdoing within the jurisdiction of the intelligence community,” said Patrick Boland, a spokesman for Schiff.

In his whistleblower complaint, the officer said Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate a host of issues that could benefit him politically, including one connected to the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

A reconstituted transcript released by the White House of a call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine backed up the whistleblower’s account, which was itself based on information from a half dozen American officials and deemed credible by the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson.

Trump, who has focused his ire on Schiff amid the burgeoning Ukraine scandal, wasted no time in trying to use the revelation about the whistleblower’s attempt to alert Congress to try to denigrate his complaint. In a news conference in the East Room of the White House after this article was published, Trump called it a scandal that Schiff knew the outlines of the whistleblower’s accusations before he filed his complaint.

“Big stuff. That’s a big story,” Trump said, waving a copy of the article in the air. “He knew long before and helped write it, too. It’s a scam,” the president added, accusing Schiff of helping the whistleblower write his complaint. There is no evidence that Schiff did, and his spokesman said he saw no part of the complaint before it was filed.

The whistleblower’s decision to offer what amounted to an early warning to the intelligence committee’s Democrats is also sure to thrust Schiff even more forcefully into the center of the controversy as a target of Trump’s.

On Wednesday, Trump said Schiff should be forced to resign for reading a parody of the Ukraine call at a hearing, an act Trump has called treasonous and criminal.

“We don’t call him shifty Schiff for nothing,” Trump said. “He’s a shifty dishonest guy.”

Schiff’s aides followed procedures involving the whistleblower’s accusations, Boland said. They referred him to an inspector general, and advised him to seek legal counsel.

Schiff never saw any part of the complaint or knew precisely what the whistleblower would deliver, Boland said.

“At no point did the committee review or receive the complaint in advance,” he said. He said the committee received the complaint the night before releasing it publicly last week and noted that came three weeks after the administration was legally mandated to turn it over to Congress. The director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, acting on the advice of his top lawyer and the Justice Department, had blocked Atkinson from turning over the complaint sooner.

In response to questions, spokeswomen for Sens. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mark Warner of Virginia, its Democratic vice chairman, said it was standard procedure to refer whistleblowers to the relevant inspectors general.

The future whistleblower went to Schiff’s committee after he grew concerned about the first investigation he had touched off.

The CIA officer first had a colleague take his concerns — in vague form — to the CIA’s general counsel, Courtney Simmons Elwood, who began a preliminary inquiry by contacting a deputy White House counsel, alerting the White House that complaints were coming from the CIA.

As CIA and White House lawyers began following up on the complaint, the CIA officer became nervous, according to a person familiar with the matter. He learned that John Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and the legal adviser to the national security adviser, was among those scrutinizing his initial allegation.

Contacts in the National Security Council had also told the CIA officer that the White House lawyers had authorized records of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy to be put in a highly classified computer system, meaning that the lawyers who were now helping the CIA investigate the officer’s allegations were the same ones implicated in them. The officer has alleged that White House aides’ decision to store the call records more restrictively was itself an abuse of the system.

The CIA officer decided the complaint he had brought to Elwood was at risk of being swept aside, prompting him to go to the lawmakers who conduct oversight of the intelligence agencies.

He followed the advice of Schiff’s aide and filed his complaint to Atkinson. And though Maguire blocked him from forwarding it to Congress, he did allow Atkinson to notify lawmakers of its existence.

The complaint was filed in consultation with a lawyer, officials said. “The intelligence community whistleblower followed the advice of legal counsel from the beginning,” said Andrew Bakaj, lead counsel for the whistleblower. “The laws and processes have been followed.”

Filing a complaint with Atkinson gave the whistleblower added protections against reprisals and also allowed him to legally report on classified information. While House Intelligence Committee members are allowed to receive classified whistleblower complaints, they are not allowed to make such complaints public, according to a former official. A complaint forwarded to the committee by the inspector general gives it more latitude over what it can publicize.

By the time the whistleblower filed his complaint, Schiff and his staff knew at least vaguely what it contained.

Schiff, after a private letter and phone call to Maguire, publicly released a letter seeking the complaint and suggested it could involve Trump or others in his administration. Schiff followed up by subpoenaing Maguire to testify before the intelligence committee.

Officials in Maguire’s office, who did not know the details of the complaint, were puzzled why Schiff went public right away, eschewing the usual closed-door negotiations.

But letters from the inspector general and Maguire had made clear to the House Intelligence Committee that the Justice Department and the White House were blocking Maguire’s office from forwarding the complaint.

Congressional officials insisted that Schiff and his aides followed the rules. Whistleblowers regularly approach the committee, given its role in conducting oversight of the intelligence agencies, Boland said.

“The committee expects that they will be fully protected, despite the president’s threats,” Boland said, referring to the whistleblower without identifying his gender. “Only through their courage did these facts about the president’s abuse of power come to light.”