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 TrumpTrump endorses former White House physician Ronny Jackson for Congress Newly released emails reveal officials' panic over loss of credibility after Trump's Dorian claims Lindsey Graham thanks Trump, bemoans 'never-ending bull----' at South Carolina rally  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 BidenTrump surveys South Carolina supporters on preferred Democratic opponent Watch live: Trump holds a rally in South Carolina Biden, Klobuchar to address AIPAC via video 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 SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Facebook — Washington, Wall Street on edge about coronavirus Hillicon Valley — Presented by Facebook — Federal court rules tech giants can censor content | Trump upends surveillance fight | Senate passes bill barring federal funds for Huawei equipment House Intelligence lawyer Goldman leaving committee 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 NunesEthics complaint filed against Nunes asks how he's paying for lawsuits The Hill's Morning Report - Can Sanders be stopped? Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick 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 HimesDemocrats press World Bank chief on meeting with Ukrainian president amid Trump pressure House Republicans boycott public Intelligence panel hearing Democrats criticize Medal of Freedom for Limbaugh as 'slap in the face' MORE (Conn.) Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill California lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Chris Wallace: 'Just insane' Swalwell is talking impeaching Trump again MORE (Calif.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchA disaster for diplomacy and the Zionist dream Sanders endorses 9 progressive House candidates Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements 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 GiulianiWanna beat Sanders? Hope he wins South Carolina Giuliani: Bloomberg 'jeopardized' stop and frisk by 'overusing it' Giuliani asked for post-9/11 mayoral election to be canceled so he could stay in office: book 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 CummingsLawmakers dedicate Oversight room to Cummings, unveil plaque Oversight Committee room to be dedicated to late Rep. Elijah Cummings House wants documents on McEntee's security clearances MORE (D-Md.), and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelOvernight Defense: Lawmakers clash during Pompeo hearing on Iran | Trump touts Taliban deal ahead of signing | Trump sued over plan to use Pentagon funds for border wall GOP rep, Democrats exchange heated remarks during Pompeo hearing on Iran Overnight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa 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."