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 TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview 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 BidenCNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview Yang cautions Democrats: Impeachment might not be 'successful' Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment 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 SchiffWhite House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours Trump embarks on Twitter spree amid impeachment inquiry, Syria outrage House Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment 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 Nunes10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable A Republican Watergate veteran's perspective on a Trump impeachment Meet the lawyer at center of whistleblower case: 'It is an everyday adventure' MORE (Calif.), the panel's ranking member, and Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayIntelligence watchdog huddles with members as impeachment push grows What's causing the congressional 'Texodus'? Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 MORE (Texas), as well as Democratic Reps. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesSunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions Intelligence Committee Democrat: 'No requirement' for impeachment inquiry vote Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria MORE (Conn.) Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellMulvaney admission deals blow to White House impeachment defense Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense Lawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump MORE (Calif.) and Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchDemocrats see John Bolton as potential star witness Democrats plow ahead as Trump seeks to hobble impeachment effort Democrats claim new momentum from intelligence watchdog testimony 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 VolkerPerry won't comply with subpoena in impeachment inquiry Ex-Watergate prosecutor says evidence in impeachment inquiry 'clearly' points to Trump Trump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary 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 GiulianiGiuliani asked State Dept. to grant visa for ex-Ukraine official at center of Biden allegations: report Overnight Energy: Trump taps deputy energy secretary to replace Perry | Praises pick Dan Brouillette as 'total professional' | Perry denies quid pro quo over Ukraine Ex-Watergate prosecutor says evidence in impeachment inquiry 'clearly' points to Trump 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 CummingsBaltimore mayor looks to rename downtown courthouse after Cummings Cummings to lie in state at the Capitol Gowdy remembers political opponent, good friend Elijah Cummings MORE (D-Md.), and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense 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."