Democrats claimed to find new momentum Friday in their impeachment inquiry into President Trump after the top watchdog of the nation’s intelligence community briefed lawmakers on his investigation into allegations that Trump sought foreign help to boost his 2020 campaign.
During nearly seven hours of testimony to members of the House Intelligence Committee, Michael Atkinson, the inspector general (IG) of the intelligence community, outlined the details of his probe into the complaint from an anonymous government whistleblower at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The whistleblower alleged that Trump had threatened to withhold U.S. military assistance to Ukraine unless President Volodymyr Zelensky launched an anti-corruption investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s chief political adversaries heading into next year’s election.
Democrats on the Intelligence panel provided few details of Atkinson’s testimony, but said it confirmed crucial — and damning — components of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call, a summary of which was released last week by the White House.
“While we cannot get into the substance, we explored with the IG through documents and testimony the reasons why he found the whistleblower complaint to be both urgent and credible,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said afterward in a statement. “Now that we have all seen the call record, we can see that the IG’s determination was correct in both respects.”
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said Democrats are getting plenty of help from the president himself as they pursue their impeachment probe. He pointed to Trump’s entreaty Thursday for both Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter.
“Every day that goes by the president further implicates himself. Yesterday, publicly, he asked the Chinese for help,” Himes said. “The more we learn, the more we learn that everything that was in that whistleblower’s complaint has corroboration.”
Republicans, meanwhile, called for more details from Schiff following a New York Times report this week saying the whistleblower reached out to a member of Schiff’s staff before filing the complaint. The staffer suggested the whistleblower find a lawyer and meet with an inspector general to file a complaint.
“The only way that we will be able to get that information is from the [Intelligence Committee] majority themselves. They are fact witnesses in the same investigation that they are now running,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a member of the panel.
“Nowhere else in the United States of America can you be called a fact witness and the prosecutor or investigation in anything, much less the investigation to remove the president from office,” Ratcliffe said.
Schiff maintained that it is not unusual for whistleblowers to contact congressional committees and that standard procedures were followed.
He said that without those procedures, “no whistleblower could contact Congress, and no committee could conduct an investigation.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), another member of the Intelligence Committee, also pushed back against the GOP’s process criticisms — but from a different angle. The identity and credibility of the whistleblower is essentially insignificant, he argued, if the allegations the source proffered have already been confirmed by the White House’s own public summary of the Zelensky call.
“The questions that a lot of my Republican colleagues had went to the credibility of the whistleblower and a lot of the process things. But that’s all been bypassed by the fact that the White House released the readout of the … conversation,” Welch said.
“The credibility of the whistleblower and the IG report have been solidly confirmed in the readout of the discussion between our president and the president of Ukraine,” he added.
The briefing with the inspector general marked the end of a whirlwind week for the House impeachment inquiry.
It also came a day after Trump openly encouraged Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens.
“They should investigate the Bidens,” Trump said of the Ukrainian government while speaking to reporters Thursday. “Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”
Most Republicans have remained silent or defended Trump’s public comments. But a few criticized the president, including Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) and retiring Rep. Will Hurd (Texas).
House committees have been moving aggressively in recent days to demand documents and witnesses for the impeachment inquiry.
On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee, in consultation with the Foreign Affairs and Oversight panels, issued a subpoena to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to provide documents by Oct. 15 relating to Giuliani’s involvement in pressuring Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden.
The committees also requested depositions in the next two weeks with three of Giuliani’s business associates.
And on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that officials from his agency would not appear for requested depositions due to insufficient time to prepare. That came in response to a subpoena last week for documents and requests for the witness interviews.
Kurt Volker, who served as the special envoy to Ukraine until his resignation last week, still appeared for a 10-hour deposition on Thursday, in which he provided a series of text messages between himself, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Andrey Yermak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Giuliani and William Taylor, a top official at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is scheduled to appear for a deposition with lawmakers on Oct. 11. It’s unclear when the other officials requested for depositions, including Sondland, might appear.
On Wednesday, the three committees released a draft subpoena that was formally issued Friday for the White House to hand over documents related to Trump’s calls with the Ukrainian president, efforts to conceal those calls and the discussions about withholding aid to Ukraine.
On Friday, the committees sent a letter to Vice President Pence requesting documents related to his involvement in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Democrats seized on the text messages provided by Volker as evidence that Trump administration officials pushed Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and made it a condition for a White House visit.
“Heard from White House – assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker wrote in one message.
Later on, Taylor is shown expressing alarm over withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
In an exchange on Sept. 9, Taylor said: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland replied that he believed Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions.”
“The president 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 Zelensky promised during his campaign,” Sondland said.
Trump, meanwhile, escalated his attacks on Schiff on Friday evening by tweeting a video that opens with an image of Pinocchio.
“LYIN’ SHIFTY SCHIFF!” Trump wrote.