Whistle-blower lawyers defend client privacy: Impeachment update

Chris Strohm

Impeachment investigators won’t hear testimony Friday on President Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine because the House is adjourned for Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings’s funeral.

On Saturday, Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state of European and Eurasian affairs, is scheduled to appear.

Here are the latest developments:

DOJ Defends Its Whistle-Blower Stance (3:20 p.m.)

The Justice Department defended its position Friday that a whistle-blower’s complaint about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president wasn’t an “urgent” matter that needed to be shared with Congress.

“Simply put: The president is not part of the intelligence community as Congress defined it” and therefore the conversation didn’t relate to an “intelligence activity” covered by a whistle-blower protection act, Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel said in a letter Friday to a group of federal inspectors general.

The watchdogs wrote a letter backing the initial conclusion of the intelligence community’s inspector general, who found the whistle-blower report to be “urgent,” which by law would require it to be forwarded to Congress within seven days. They expressed concern that the position by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel could have a chilling effect on future whistle-blowers and could compromise the independence of inspectors general.

“We are confident that our opinion does not diminish the statutory protections that Congress has provided to federal employees and contractors who make good-faith disclosures to inspectors general,” Engel wrote. He added that “an accommodation process with Congress” led to Trump’s decision to release the complaint and a partial transcript of the president’s call.

Whistle-Blower Lawyers Defend Client Privacy (1:04 p.m.)

A member of the audience holds a copy of the Whistle-Blower Complaint letter sent to Senate and House Intelligence Committees during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Attorneys for the whistle-blower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry said in an op-ed article that their client’s identity is “irrelevant” and that it’s “outrageous” for Trump to suggest that he or she engaged in treason.

Because other witnesses have more information about Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, there’s “no justification” for exposing the whistle-blower’s identity and putting that person at risk, attorneys Andrew Bakaj and Mark Zaid wrote in the Washington Post.

“The president and his supporters remain fanatically devoted to bringing our client into the spotlight,” the lawyers wrote. They added, “It is clear to all what the president was suggesting” when Trump said that the U.S. used to handle treason differently,

The lawyers said their client is willing to respond to questions “in writing and under oath.” However, noting that Republicans in Congress are calling for public testimony from the whistle-blower, Bakaj and Zaid said exposing their client’s identity would create a risk of harm to the whistle-blower and discourage others from coming forward.

“The reckless attacks on our client are particularly disturbing because they undermine an already frail system meant to protect honorable whistle-blowers,” the lawyers wrote.

Watchdogs Fault DOJ Whistle-Blower Finding (11:14 a.m.)

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, among dozens of other inspectors general, signed a letter of implicit criticism of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel's finding that the whistle-blower complaint didn’t meet the statutory definition of an “urgent concern.”

A group of inspectors general offered an implicit criticism of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, urging it to withdraw or modify its finding that the whistle-blower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry didn’t meet the statutory definition of an “urgent concern.”

The letter, dated Oct. 22, backs the initial finding of the inspector general of the intelligence community who found the whistle-blower report to be urgent, which by law would require the complaint to be forwarded to Congress within seven days.

In the case of the complaint describing Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president, the report’s referral to Congress was delayed by the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion contradicting the inspector general’s conclusion.

The letter from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, published Friday, expressed concern that the OLC opinion could have a chilling effect on future whistle-blowers and could compromise the independence of inspectors general.

The letter is signed by Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the Justice Department, among dozens of others. – Chris Strohm

White House Official to Appear If Subpoenaed (10:32 a.m.)

The lawyer for Timothy Morrison, senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, said he’ll testify to the House committees if he receives a subpoena. He is scheduled to testify next Thursday, Oct. 31.

“If subpoenaed, Mr. Morrison plans to appear for his deposition. We will not be commenting on what he will say to the committees,” attorney Barbara Van Gelder said. Some witnesses who are current government officials have testified under so-called friendly subpoenas from House investigators.

In his position at the NSC, Morrison replaced Fiona Hill, who already testified before the committees.

Morrison’s name appeared more than a dozen times in the opening statement by William Taylor, the current envoy to Ukraine, who said Morrison provided many of the briefings he got of interactions between administration officials and the Ukrainians.

Taylor testified that Morrison described a “sinking feeling” after one phone call between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which Trump insisted that Ukraine publicly announce an investigation of Joe Biden and the 2016 election. – Jordan Fabian, Billy House

Key Events

  • Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, called the investigation “illegitimate” and introduced a resolution calling on the House to vote to start a formal impeachment inquiry before proceeding any further. It also asks Democrats to let Trump call witnesses on his behalf and allow minority Republicans to issue subpoenas in the inquiry.
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has serious questions to answer in the impeachment inquiry and said “maybe he’s complicit” in Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to probe Joe Biden and his son.
  • The top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, Jim Jordan, asked Reeker of the State Department to reschedule his testimony from Saturday to a weekday so more lawmakers will be able to attend.

–With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Billy House.