WASHINGTON — The intelligence community employee who has accused President Donald Trump of abusing his office filed his whistleblower complaint after first consulting with an aide to the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a committee spokesman acknowledged Wednesday, touching off a firestorm of criticism from Republicans.
But while President Trump and others accused House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., of orchestrating the complaint, Democratic committee aides told NBC News that what happened was rather routine, and no different from the two to three times a month an intelligence agency employee comes to them with concerns.
They said they did what they usually do in that situation: They instructed the future whistleblower to file a formal document with the inspector general, as called for in the law.
"Like other whistleblowers have done before and since under Republican and Democratic-controlled committees, the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance on how to report possible wrongdoing within the jurisdiction of the Intelligence Community," committee spokesman Patrick Boland told NBC News. "This is a regular occurrence, given the committee's unique oversight role and responsibilities. Consistent with the committee's longstanding procedures, committee staff appropriately advised the whistleblower to contact an Inspector General and to seek legal counsel."
The sequence of events was first reported by the New York Times. The future whistleblower, a CIA officer, came to the committee after he had already filed a complaint with the CIA general counsel, and was concerned that the complaint was not being properly handled, Democratic committee aides said.
"At no point did the Committee review or receive the complaint in advance," Boland said.
Trump, at a news conference, seized on the revelation and made an unsupported allegation that Schiff had helped prepare the complaint.
"He knew long before and helped write it, too. It's a scam," the president said.
The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, claimed on Twitter that Schiff "just got caught orchestrating with the whistleblower before the complaint was ever filed. Democrats have rigged this process from the start."
Boland and a lawyer for the whistleblower denied that Schiff played any role in writing the complaint.
However, Republicans focused on the veracity of a statement Schiff made on MSNBC's Morning Joe a few days after he publicized the existence of the complaint.
"We have not spoken directly with the whistleblower," Schiff said. "We would like to, but I'm sure the whistleblower has concerns that he has not been advised, as the law requires, by the inspector general or the Director of National Intelligence, just as to how he is to communicate with Congress."
A committee aide said Schiff was referring to the committee writ large "officially interviewing the whistleblower," as distinct from the brief conversation with a staffer. But Sam Stein, the Daily Beast journalist who asked the question, tweeted, "Schiff did appear to lie here in previously saying that his office had not spoken directly with the whistleblower."
He added, "But if you care more about this stuff than the actual substance of the whistleblower complaint then you're being a hack."
Boland noted that the committee did not receive a copy of the complaint from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence until the night before the acting director of national intelligence's testimony, more than three weeks after the legal deadline by which the committee should have received the complaint.
"The whistleblower should be commended for acting appropriately and lawfully throughout every step of the process," he added. "The committee expects that they will be fully protected, despite the President's threats. Only through their courage did these facts about the President's abuse of power come to light. The committee encourages all whistleblowers to come forward and seek advice on how to make disclosures of serious or flagrant wrongdoing. The committee — and the nation — rely on brave members of the Intelligence Community to raise the alarm and avail themselves of established channels."
Schiff does not know the identity of the complainant, the committee aides said, adding that the whistleblower passed on only a vague account of his or her concerns. They would not comment on whether Schiff knew they involved a Trump phone call with the Ukrainian president.
But one result of the heads up was that Schiff, alone among members of Congress, knew there was something important when the inspector general of the Intelligence Community notified the House and Senate intelligence committees that an "urgent concern" complaint was being withheld from them on legal grounds. On September 13, a Friday night, Schiff announced without warning that he was issuing a subpoena for the complaint, and suggested the complaint was being withheld to protect the president. Other Democrats did not appear to know what he knew.
The committee aides added that the bulk of the whistleblower's complaint was marked unclassified, and that he therefore did not violate the whistleblower law that prohibits intelligence employees from conveying classified information to Congress without going through procedures, including filing a complaint with an inspector general.
A source close to the whistleblower's legal team said there was no violation, and did not dispute the sequence of events as reported in the New York Times and confirmed by committee aides.
When the whistleblower first had a colleague convey his or her concerns in very general terms to the CIA's general counsel, the CIA's counsel briefed the White House Counsel's Office about the complaint, a person familiar with the matter said. When the whistleblower learned about that, he became concerned the complaint was being swept aside, the New York Times reported.
"The intelligence community whistleblower followed the advice of legal counsel from the beginning," Andrew Bakaj, lead counsel for the whistleblower, said. "The laws and processes have been followed."