Intelligence watchdog huddles with members as impeachment push grows

The intelligence community’s top watchdog is huddling Friday with House Intelligence Committee members of both parties, a day after the release of explosive text messages between leading administration officials that have fueled the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE.

Michael Atkinson, inspector general (IG) of the intelligence community, had previously expressed grave concerns over a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump had threatened to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine unless that country's president launched an investigation into one of Trump's top political rivals, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says Trump executive order is 'a reckless war on Social Security' Trump got into testy exchange with top GOP donor Adelson: report Blumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections MORE.

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Federal election law bars campaigns from receiving gifts from foreign entities. And Democrats' impeachment inquiry, now being led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package House Intelligence panel opens probe into DHS's involvement in response to protests MORE (D-Calif.), is focused on whether Trump abused his power by asking a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 election to give him a boost.

Atkinson has deemed the whistleblower complaint of "urgent concern," largely for its implications for election security. And he is said to have already interviewed multiple witnesses with knowledge of Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Against that backdrop, Atkinson's testimony carries high stakes for both parties. And as the IG entered the Capitol basement just before 10 a.m. Friday, rows of cameras and scores of reporters were lined up in hallways that would otherwise have been empty amid the long congressional recess.

The IG offered no comment as he came in.

Lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee began trickling in afterwards, including GOP Reps. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesSunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline MORE (Calif.), the panel's ranking member, and Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayLive coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing Laughter erupts at hearing after Democrat fires back: Trump 'has 5 Pinocchios on a daily basis' Live coverage: Schiff closes with speech highlighting claims of Trump's corruption MORE (Texas), as well as Democratic Reps. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesMany Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum SEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (Conn.) Eric SwalwellEric Michael Swalwell'This already exists': Democrats seize on potential Trump executive order on preexisting conditions Swalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn't aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over MORE (Calif.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchVermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship can tackle systemic racism National Retail Federation hosts virtual 'store tours' for lawmakers amid coronavirus Democrats roll out national plan to reopen America MORE (Vt.).

Atkinson's testimony comes a day after three House committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Reform and Foreign Affairs — deposed another key figure in the whistleblower complaint: Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP senators request details on Hunter Biden's travel for probe Yovanovitch retires from State Department: reports Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial MORE, who was Trump's envoy to Ukraine for more than two years before resigning that post last week amid the whistleblower furor.

After roughly nine hours behind closed doors, lawmakers from both parties said Volker's testimony had only bolstered their conflicting cases — highlighting the entrenched partisanship surrounding the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into the president.

Hours later, Democratic leaders released transcripts of communications among Volker, Trump's personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiCoronavirus concerns emerge around debates Giuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group Commission on Presidential Debates rejects Trump campaign call for earlier debate MORE and two other top diplomats that appear to reveal a coordinated effort to pressure Zelensky to commit to an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who was employed by a Ukrainian energy company while Joe Biden was vice president.

One of those diplomats, William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Ukraine, expressed concerns last month that Trump was crossing a line by dangling military aid to pressure Zelensky for political favors.

"I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Sept. 9.

Sondland rejected that characterization, saying Trump "has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."

"The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelenskiy promised during his campaign," Sondland wrote, adding that they should “stop the back and forth by text.”

That argument has does little to assuage the concerns of Democrats, who are pressing forward aggressively with their impeachment inquiry amid growing pressure from the left to draft articles and bring them to the floor.

“This is not normal or acceptable. It is unethical, unpatriotic, and wrong," Schiff, Oversight Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden comes to Washington to honor John Lewis Lawmakers set for tearful goodbye to John Lewis MORE (D-Md.), and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHuffPost reporter discusses progressives' successful showing on Tuesday Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets Progressives soaring after big primary night MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote to their Democratic colleagues late Thursday night.

"American Presidents should never press foreign powers to target their domestic political rivals."