White House correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report
Acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire told lawmakers Thursday he has complied with his “responsibility to follow the law every step of the way'' as he faced questions about why he initially blocked the release of a whistleblower complaint now at the center of an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's actions.
Maguire told the House intelligence committee he could not legally disclose the complaint because he “did not have the authority to waive” executive privilege.
The acting DNI, who told lawmakers he believes the matter is “unprecedented,'' is also set to speak to members of the Senate's intelligence committee behind closed doors.
Ahead of his public testimony, the House committee released text of the whistleblower complaint.
"In the course of my official duties, I have received 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 the foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election," the complaint said. It added that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani was a central figure in this effort and that Attorney General William Barr appeared to be involved as well.
The complaint also said the White House then attempted to “lock down” the information to prevent its public disclosure.
White House officials expressed great concern over having witnessed Trump “abuse his office for personal gain” during a July phone call with Uranian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy, according to the complaint.
The White House dismissed the complaint as "nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings—all of which shows nothing improper."
In opening remarks of Thursday's House hearing, committee chairman, Democrat Adam Schiff, said the complaint is “the most graphic evidence yet that the president of the United States has betrayed his oath of office.”
Schiff said as the Ukrainian president tried to ingratiate himself to Trump during the call, Trump’s response “reads like a classic organized crime shake down.”
Trump has said he did nothing wrong in regard to the phone call, in which he asked the Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Shortly after the complaint was released, Trump tweeted the “DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO DESTROY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY”and urged Republicans to “FIGHT HARD … OUR COUNTRY IS AT STAKE!”
"I'm reeling from the content of the complaint. It's horrifying. America is facing a clear and present danger to our continued existence as a republic," former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub told VOA.
The controversy began last week when reports emerged that an unidentified whistleblower in the national intelligence community became alarmed about a series of actions inside the Trump administration, which include what is now known to be a July phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
The whistleblower contacted the intelligence inspector general, who called the complaint "serious" and "urgent."
The White House on Wednesday released a summary of the phone call that shows Trump asked for Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden.
Democrats say the summary confirms their suspicions that the president was conducting U.S. foreign policy for his own personal political gain. President Trump however dismissed suggestions that anything he said was improper. Several Republican lawmakers also defended the president on Wednesday, saying the summary does not show anything incriminating.
During a news conference following his meeting with the Ukrainian president on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Trump insisted there was "no quid pro quo" during the July conversation with Zelenskiy -- meaning he did not promise any benefit for Ukraine in exchange for help on the Biden issue.
Trump said he supports the Ukrainian leader's effort to combat "massive" corruption, and doubled down on his accusations against Biden and his son Hunter. Earlier this week Trump confirmed that he withheld military aid from Ukraine, saying he did so over his concerns that the U.S. was contributing more to Ukraine than were European countries.
According to the summary of the call, Trump had asked Zelenskiy to investigate if Democratic presidential contender Biden shut down a probe into a Ukrainian company that employed his son.
The call summary also showed that Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to speak with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, whom he referred to as a "highly respected man" as well as Attorney General William Barr. Trump said that Giuliani would be traveling to Ukraine. Zelenskiy said he would meet with Giuliani when he visited.
The summary's disclosure came one day after Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump and allegations that he sought a foreign government's help to smear a Democratic political opponent and help Trump with his 2020 reelection bid.