The acting chief of America's intelligence arm sat before a Congressional committee hearing Thursday morning to repeatedly remind Democratic members of the House that it is their responsibility to determine whether President Trump's behavior with Ukraine's president crossed an ethical or legal line.
Joseph Maguire, who became acting director of national intelligence in August after Dan Coats stepped down, sat today for more than three hours before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Part of the committee's purpose was to question Maguire about the complicated bureaucratic guidelines and statutory regulations that delayed his office in passing along a whistleblower's complaint that Trump was pressing Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in an effort to benefit Trump's re-election efforts.
But as the committee hearing wore on, it also became abundantly clear that some of the Democrats on the committee, particularly Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D–Calif.), wanted to get Maguire on the record saying that what Trump had done was criminal and that he must be investigated. In response, Maguire reminded the committee several times that that is not his role. His role in the investigation ended after he determined that the whistleblower's complaint seemed credible and passed it along to the Justice Department to investigate any possible crimes. (The Justice Department has declined to pursue the matter further thus far.)
Maguire made it clear that it's not his role or that of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to recommend criminal charges or investigate the president. He grew visibly frustrated toward the end of the hearing, as Schiff went over several of the complaints lodged by the whistleblower and repeatedly asked Maguire if he thought that Trump's behavior justified investigation.
"You have all of the information," Maguire eventually told the committee. "I believe it's a matter to be determined by you, the chair, and this committee."
Good chunks of the hearing were devoted to complaints by Democrats about the delay in the committee getting the contents of the complaint. By law, when a whistleblower complaint from within or about U.S. national intelligence agencies is determined to be an "urgent concern," the complaint is supposed to be passed along within seven days to the appropriate congressional intelligence committees for review. However, the statute also requires that the complaint concern people or organizations under the purview of the DNI, which the president is not. While acknowledging that this case is "unprecedented," Maguire attempted to explain that Trump's authority to invoke executive privilege took precedence.
Given that the complaint and a summary of Trump's phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy have been made public, much of the hearing had the feel of members of Congress complaining that their authority and oversight was not being respected because they had to wait. A couple of Democrats, particularly failed presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D–Calif.), were aggressive toward Maguire, acting as though he should have done more, even though Maguire reminded them all that investigating this potential criminal activity is beyond the duties of his department.
"At this point, only this committee and this Congress is in the position to investigate," Maguire said.
The entire committee hearing was reminiscent of what happened when Congress insisted that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testify before them about the contents of his report on Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and the extent to which Trump attempted to obstruct that investigation. Mueller made it abundantly clear that he wanted the report to speak for itself and would not be adding any additional insights beyond those contained in his report. But Democrats in Congress really, really wanted Mueller to say that he believed Trump had obstructed the investigation; Mueller did not take the bait.
Once again, Schiff and some others wanted Maguire to say something that would make impeaching Trump feel less political and more like an act of justice. House members declared that the president is not above the law and asked Maguire whether he thinks the president is above the law. Yet the "law" that Trump answers to in these circumstances is administered by Congress itself. As Maguire accurately noted, it's up to Congress to decide whether to punish Trump. Literally no other individual or institution can do that work for them.
The committee hearing was another painful reminder that Congress has surrendered much of its constitutional authority to the executive branch, and not just in terms of war-making, regulatory implementation.
The Republican questioning on the panel was less confrontational, with Republican committee members focusing on Democrats, like Schiff and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), who accused Maguire of breaking the law. There were some odd suggestions from the likes of Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.) that somebody in the intelligence community might be responsible for leaking to the press—basically, pushing the "Deep State is after Trump" conspiracy. But the whistleblower's complaint makes it clear that he or she had communicated with several White House officials who had direct knowledge of the contents of the call. Considering how many people likely knew about the concerns, it's possible the press leaks came from within Trump's own staff.
Nunes did, however, say something to the Democrats on the committee worth noting and supporting.
"I would just urge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, if they would like to impeach the president, they need to go the floor of the House and actually call for a vote," Nunes said. "The Intelligence Committee is not the appropriate place to try articles of impeachment. There is a process in the Constitution I advise you all to follow."
He's not wrong. If Congressional Democrats believe that the president is not "above the law," they have to recognize that Congress is responsible for enforcing that law and act accordingly.