Donald Trump Whistleblower Hearing Sends Cable and Broadcast Networks Into Watergate Mode

Joseph Maguire
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The broadcast and cable networks gave a glimpse of what is in store for the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, as they devoted live coverage of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

Maguire’s testimony was not part of an impeachment hearing per se, but it centered on the whistleblower who sounded the alarm over Trump’s alleged conduct and the White House efforts afterward to conceal it.

Just minutes before the hearing was set to begin, the House Intelligence Committee released the actual complaint itself, revealing that the whistleblower had “information from multiple U.S. government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the president’s main domestic political rivals.”

As Maguire appeared before the lawmakers, networks were faced with covering the drama of the hearing but at the same time the revelations from the release of the complaint. CNN’s banner read: “Whistleblower: Trump tried to get Ukraine to interfere in election, and White House tried to cover it up.” CNN, Fox News and MSNBC also included a chyron message directing viewers to their websites to read the complaint.

Joseph Maguire Hearing CNN
CNN via screengrab

At the hearing, Democrats grilled Maguire about why he initially withheld the whistleblower’s complaint from Congress, as is required by law.

Maguire defended his decision to not immediately turn over the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress, citing an exception for executive privilege. But he also was careful not to delve into thornier issues of whether the claims of the whistleblower had credibility. He said that he thinks that “the whistleblower did the right thing. He followed the law every step of the way.”

Some of the Republicans on the committee fixated on the fact that the whistleblower was not a witness to Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but based the complaint on colleagues’ accounts of what happened.

Yet Maguire agreed that the whistleblower’s details of the Trump-Zelensky conversation mirror those in the transcript memo released by the White House on Wednesday.

“I would say that the whistleblower’s complaint is in alignment with what was released by the president yesterday,” Maguire said.

Much of the hearing was devoted to complex legal issues of how Maguire handled the whistleblower complaint after receiving it in August — and less so on the substance of the complaint itself.

Still, the networks stayed on coverage throughout, a signal of the type of attention they will devote to the impeachment inquiry. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, CNN en Espanol, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and C-SPAN were among those that carried it live. The local Fox affiliate in Los Angeles did not.

Other highlights of the hearing: Maguire testified that he shared the complaint with the Justice Department in making the determination that it did not meet the threshold of being “urgent,” triggering the need for its immediate release to Congress. He also said that he shared it with the White House’s office of legal counsel in determining that it involved issues of executive privilege, given that it dealt with the substance of Trump’s call with a foreign leader.

The hearing also put the spotlight on Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said that “what you saw on this committee is democracy, as ugly as it can be, as personal as it can be.”

At the start of the hearing, Schiff gave his interpretation of the call as a “classic organized crime shakedown,” reciting line-by-line what he thought Trump was trying to convey.

“This is some in character what the president was trying to communicate,” Schiff said. “It would be funny if it wasn’t such a graphic betrayal of the president’s Oath of Office.”

Republicans seized on Schiff’s recitation to grouse that it would get played later in the day on news outlets as it were a verbatim reading of the actual Trump-Zelensky conversation.

Maguire said he was well aware that the complaint would thrust him into the spotlight, as he referred to the whole situation as “unprecedented.”

When Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) asked him, “When you read the complaint, were you shocked at all by what you read?”

He responded, “I realized full and well the importance of the allegation and I also have to tell you Congresswoman, I anticipated having to sit in a committee sometime to discuss it.”

As the hearing was unfolding, Trump was in New York speaking to the staff of the United States Mission to the United Nations. According to The New York Times, he lashed out at those who provided information to the whistleblower and again assailed the media for their focus on the story.

“I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistle-blower the information because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said, according to the Times. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” The whistleblower’s identity has not been revealed, but the Times reported that he was a CIA officer with “a sophisticated understanding of Ukrainian politics.”

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