President Donald Trump repeatedly defended himself Friday against an intelligence whistleblower's potentially explosive complaint, including an allegation of wrongdoing in a reported private conversation Trump had with a foreign leader.
The complaint, which the administration has refused to let Congress see, remains shrouded in mystery but is "serious" and "urgent," the government's intelligence watchdog said. But Trump dismissed the matter, insisting he did nothing wrong.
He declared Friday that the complaint was made by a "partisan whistleblower," though he later said he did not know the identity of the person. He chided reporters for asking about it and said the complaint was "just another political hack job."
"I have conversations with many leaders. It's always appropriate. Always appropriate," Trump said. "At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country."
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported Thursday that at least part of the complaint involves Ukraine. The newspapers cited anonymous sources familiar with the matter. NBC News has not independently confirmed that Ukraine is at the center of the issue.
The Post first reported Wednesday the complaint involves an intelligence official's allegation that Trump made the "promise" to an unidentified foreign leader. The Post cited two anonymous former U.S. officials.
A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News Wednesday night that the whistleblower complaint involves a phone conversation that Trump had.
Trump, who sat in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistleblower's complaint centered on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The president responded "I really don't know" but continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was "perfectly fine and respectful."
The standoff raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump's allies are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president from the reach of Congress.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he also could not confirm whether newspaper reports were accurate because the administration was claiming executive privilege in withholding the complaint. But letters from the inspector general to the committee released Thursday said it was an "urgent" matter of "serious or flagrant abuse" that must be shared with lawmakers.
The letters also made it clear that Maguire consulted with the Justice Department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress in a further departure from standard procedure. It's unclear whether the White House was also involved, Schiff said.
Because the administration is claiming the information is privileged, Schiff said he believes the whistleblower's complaint "likely involves the president or people around him."
It also plunged the Trump administration into an extraordinary showdown with Congress over access to the whistleblower's complaint as lawmakers press their oversight of the executive branch.
The administration has kept Congress from even learning what exactly the whistleblower is alleging, but the intelligence community's inspector general said the matter involves the "most significant" responsibilities of intelligence leadership. A lawmaker said the complaint was "based on a series of events."
The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.
Schiff said he was prepared to go to court to try to force the Trump administration to open up about the complaint.
"The inspector general has said this cannot wait," said Schiff, describing the administration's blockade as an unprecedented departure from law. "There's an urgency here that I think the courts will recognize."
House Democrats are fighting the administration separately for access to witnesses and documents in impeachment probes. Democrats are also looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president's reelection effort by investigating the activities of potential rival Joe Biden's son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
During an interview Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was pressed on whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. After first denying being in touch with Ukraine officials, Giuliani said, "Of course I did."
Giuliani has spent months trying to drum up potentially damaging evidence about Biden's ties to Ukraine. He told CNN that Trump was unaware of his actions.
"I did what I did on my own," Giuliani said. "I told him about it afterward.
Later, Giuliani tweeted, "A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job." Giuliani's efforts have sparked anger among Democrats who have claimed that Trump, in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, may have asked for foreign assistance in his upcoming reelection bid.
The Trump administration recently withheld $250 million in military aid for Ukraine, funds intended to train and equip its forces in its fight against Russian separatists, before eventually releasing the money after lawmakers from both parties expressed concern over the White House's decision to sidestep congressional approval of the funds, the New York Times reported.
At the time, Democrats questioned whether the money was being withheld to put pressure on Ukraine's government to investigate Trump's main political rival in the 2020 presidential election, according to the Times.
Among the materials Democrats have sought in that investigation is the transcript of a phone call Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on July 25.
This new situation, stemming from the whistleblower's Aug. 12 complaint, has led to their public concerns that government intelligence agencies and the recently named acting director might be under pressure to withhold information from Congress.
Trump tapped Maguire, a former Navy official, as acting intelligence director in August, after the departure of Director Dan Coats, a former Republican senator who often clashed with the president, and the retirement of Sue Gordon, a career professional in the No. 2 position.
Maguire has refused to discuss details of the whistleblower complaint, but he has been subpoenaed by the House panel and is expected to testify publicly next Thursday. Both Maguire and the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, are also expected next week at the Senate intelligence committee.
Atkinson wrote in letters that Schiff released that he and Maguire had hit an "impasse" over the acting director's decision not to share the complaint with Congress.
While Atkinson wrote that he believed Maguire's position was in "good faith" it did not appear to be consistent with past practice. Atkinson said he was told by the legal counsel for the intelligence director that the complaint did not actually meet the definition of an "urgent concern." And he said the Justice Department said it did not fall under the director's jurisdiction because it did not involve an intelligence professional.
Atkinson said he disagreed with that Justice Department view. The complaint "not only falls under DNI's jurisdiction," Atkinson wrote, "but relates to one of the most significant and important of DNI's responsibilities to the American people."
The inspector general said he requested authorization to at the very least disclose the "general subject matter" to the committee but had not been allowed to do so. He said the information was "being kept" from Congress. These decisions, the inspector general said, are affecting his execution of his duties and responsibilities.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Marcy Clare Jalonick, Lisa Mascaro, Deb Riechmann, Eric Tucker and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.