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 TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled 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 Biden2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Abrams: Trump 'doing his best to undermine our confidence' in voting system 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 SchiffDemocrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Nunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence 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 NunesNunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden White House, Congress talk next coronavirus relief bill as COVID-19 continues to surge Tucker Carlson: 'Matt Drudge is now firmly a man of the progressive left' 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 SwalwellSwalwell: 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 Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO 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 GiulianiNunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Democratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Swalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer 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 CummingsThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden comes to Washington to honor John Lewis Lawmakers set for tearful goodbye to John Lewis We have 100 days to make our nation right MORE (D-Md.), and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelProgressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul House Democrats 'alarmed' by allegations about US diplomat in Brazil Democratic chairman subpoenas Pompeo for records related to Biden, Burisma 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."