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Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Democratic presidential front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The top U.S. intelligence official said Thursday that a whistleblower who filed a complaint concerning President Donald Trump has "acted in good faith," testifying after a House panel released the individual's report that accused Trump of using his office to solicit Ukraine's interference in the 2020 election.
The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee released a declassified version of the report, which had triggered a raging controversy and prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch a formal impeachment inquiry into the Republican president. The report said Trump acted to advance his personal political interests, and that White House officials intervened to "lockdown" evidence.
"I am deeply concerned that the actions described below constitute 'a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, or violation of law or executive order' that 'does not include differences of opinion concerning public policy matters,' consistent with the definition of an 'urgent concern'," the report said.
The identity of the whistleblower has not yet been made public.
Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Democratic presidential front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, in coordination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to a summary of a July telephone call released by the Trump administration Wednesday.
After the whistleblower report was made public, Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified to the committee. Despite comments by Trump and other Republicans, Maguire said there was no reason to believe the whistleblower was disloyal to the United States or a political hack.
"I believe the whistleblower and the inspector general have acted in good faith throughout," he said, also referring to the national intelligence internal watchdog.
Asked if there was any reason to doubt the whistleblower's patriotism, Maguire told lawmakers: "Absolutely not. ... I think the whistleblower did the right thing. I think he followed the law every step of the way."
But Maguire added that he did not think it was "appropriate" to publicly rebuke Trump's public attacks on the individual.
Maguire testified about the document after refusing for weeks to share the report with Congress.
"I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way in the matter that is before us today," Maguire told the committee.
Maguire said he had not released the report out of concern for "executive privilege," a legal doctrine involving certain executive branch communications.
"I am not familiar with any prior instances where a whistleblower complaint touched on such complicated and sensitive issues including executive privilege. I believe that this matter is unprecedented," Maguire said.
He said he did not know who the whistleblower was, but did not agree with accusations - cited in questioning by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff - that the person was politically motivated.
Schiff, the committee chairman, grilled Maguire about why the whistleblower report was withheld. Trump, Schiff said, "has betrayed his oath of office, betrayed his oath to defend our national security and betrayed his oath to defend the Constitution."
Representative Devin Nunes, a close Trump ally who is the committee's top Republican, blasted Democrats for pursuing the matter, and media reports about the call and whistleblower report,
"I want to congratulate the Democrats on their latest information warfare effort against the president," Nunes said sarcastically in his first remarks.
This complaint should never have been withheld, and it provides a roadmap for our investigation.
We will do everything we can to protect this courageous whistleblower.
The public has a right to see the complaint and what it reveals.
Saying more than six White House officials had made contact about Trump's communication with Ukraine, the report cited concerns that efforts to put pressure on Ukraine "pose risks to U.S. national security," undermining efforts "to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections."
Trump has denied wrongdoing and accused Democrats of trying to destroy him politically.
The whistleblower report also said, citing multiple U.S. officials, that senior White House officials had intervened to "lock down" records of the call, especially the traditional exact transcript.
"Instead the transcript was loaded into a separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature," the report said. "One White House official described this act as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective."
A federal law required that the report be sent to lawmakers after an inspector general determined that it was urgent and credible.
Schiff announced shortly before the hearing that the intelligence committee had received the declassified complaint and released it to the public. House and Senate committee members had been allowed to read the complaint Wednesday, when it was still classified, but only in secure rooms at the Capitol.
"This complaint should never have been withheld from Congress. It exposed serious wrongdoing, and was found both urgent and credible by the Inspector General," Schiff said in a statement.
The whistleblower complaint concerns a July 25 telephone call in which Trump pressed Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who had worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine.
The whistleblower report said Giuliani was a central figure in the alleged interference effort, and that Barr also seemed to be involved.
And it said multiple U.S. officials said Ukrainian leaders were led to believe that Trump would only talk to Zelenskiy if the Ukrainian leader would "play ball."
Trump denounced the report. "THE DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO DESTROY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY AND ALL THAT IT STANDS FOR," Trump exclaimed on Twitter. "STICK TOGETHER, PLAY THEIR GAME, AND FIGHT HARD REPUBLICANS. OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!"
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House has the power to impeach a president for "high crimes and misdemeanors." No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Democrats control the House and Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate.
The United States has been giving military aid to Ukraine since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The $391.5 million in aid at issue in the current controversy was approved by Congress to help Ukraine deal with an insurgency by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
The details of the July 25 call drew furious reactions from Democrats, who accused Trump of soliciting Ukraine's help to smear Biden, who has led in polls among Democratic candidates seeking to challenge the Republican president in the November 2020 election.
The call occurred after Trump had ordered a freeze of nearly US$400 million in American military aid to Ukraine, which the administration only later released.