By Doina Chiacu and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congress is determined to get access to Donald Trump’s calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s chairman said on Sunday, citing concerns that the Republican president may have jeopardized national security.
“I think the paramount need here is to protect the national security of the United States and see whether in the conversations with other world leaders – and in particular with Putin – that the president was also undermining our security in a way that he thought would personally benefit his campaign,” Democrat Adam Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Democratic-led House last week launched an official impeachment inquiry into Trump in the aftermath of a whistleblower complaint from an individual within the U.S. intelligence community that Trump solicited interference by Ukraine in the 2020 election for his own political benefit.
The whistleblower’s complaint cited a telephone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leader among Democratic candidates seeking to challenge Trump in 2020, and his son Hunter. Hunter Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump, in a series of Twitter posts on Sunday evening, said he wanted to “meet” the whistleblower, who he called “my accuser,” as well as “the person who illegally gave this information” to the whistleblower.
“Was this person SPYING on the U.S. President? Big Consequences!” wrote Trump, who added without providing evidence, “I want Schiff questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason.”
The whistleblower’s identity has not been made public.
Trump’s July 25 phone call came shortly after the United States froze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine, prompting concern that the president was using the taxpayer money approved by Congress as leverage for his personal political gain.
The complaint said White House lawyers directed that an electronic summary of the call be moved from the place where such things are usually kept to a separate electronic system reserved for classified and especially sensitive material – a move Democrats have called part of a cover-up.
“If those conversations with Putin or with other world leaders are sequestered in that same electronic file that is meant for covert action, not meant for this, if there’s an effort to hide those and cover those up, yes we’re determined to find out,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Schiff did not say whether he plans to subpoena that information. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The intelligence committee has reached an agreement with the whistleblower to appear before the panel, Schiff told ABC’s “This Week.” Schiff said he hoped the whistleblower would appear very soon.
Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the whistleblower, wrote on Twitter that the legal team was working with both parties in Congress and “we understand all agree protecting whistleblower’s identity is paramount.” Zaid said no agreement has been reached and no date has been set for the whistleblower’s “contact” with Congress.
In addition, a letter from Andrew Bakaj, another lawyer for the whistleblower, informed Joseph Maguire, the top U.S. intelligence official, of “serious concerns” about the individual’s safety after receiving threats, and expressed appreciation for “appropriate resources” provided by Maguire’s office.
The Ukraine scandal arose just months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller finished an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that concluded that Moscow waged a campaign of hacking and propaganda to boost Trump’s candidacy. Mueller’s investigative report, released in redacted form in April, laid out numerous contacts between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign, but found insufficient evidence to determine that a criminal conspiracy had taken place.
‘DEEP STATE OPERATIVE’
Trump has defended his phone call with Zelenskiy and called the whistleblower a “political hack.”
White House adviser Stephen Miller took up the attack on Sunday, accusing the whistleblower of being part of a “deep state” government conspiracy against Trump.
“I know the difference between a whistleblower and a ‘deep state’ operative. This is a ‘deep state’ operative pure and simple,” Miller told “Fox News Sunday.”
“The president of the United States is the whistleblower. And this individual is a saboteur trying to undermine a democratically elected government,” Miller added.
Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, in a break with the president, called himself “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, and not just because the president sought assistance in getting political dirt on Biden.
Bossert voiced concern that Trump also asked Zelenskiy to investigate the U.S. cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which looked into the hacking of Democratic Party emails in 2016 and helped lead American intelligence to conclude that Russia had done it, as well as the location of a Democratic server.
Bossert, who resigned from his post last year, said Trump was referring to “a debunked conspiracy theory that somehow Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic emails in 2016.”
“I honestly believe this president has not gotten his pound of flesh yet from past grievances on the 2016 investigation. … If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down,” Bossert told “This Week.”
Schiff said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared to lay the foundation for Trump’s call to Zelenskiy through his efforts to encourage Ukrainian authorities to investigate the Bidens.
Giuliani told Reuters he met Ukrainian officials in Madrid, Paris and Warsaw this year as he pushed for the investigation but said Trump did not pay his expenses for the trips.
Schiff told ABC his committee would decide whether to have Giuliani testify after the investigation fleshes out details of his involvement.
Giuliani said on Sunday he would testify only with Trump’s approval.
Trump’s Republican supporters in Congress defended the president’s actions. “I have zero problems with this phone call,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Lawmakers are working out logistics to protect the whistleblower’s identity and get security clearance for lawyers who represent the whistleblower. A person close to the whistleblower said on Sunday many issues remained to be worked out.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Will Dunham and Lincoln Feast.)