Intelligence community watchdog testifies behind closed doors in impeachment inquiry

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By Rebecca Shabad  with NBC News Politics
Image: Michael Atkinson
Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson arrives to testify at a House Intelligence Committee closed-door hearing on a whistleblower complaint about President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine, on Capitol Hill on Oct. 4, 2019.   -   Copyright  Jonathan Ernst Reuters

WASHINGTON — Members of the House Intelligence Committee heard closed-door testimony Friday from Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who received the whistleblower complaint at the center of the House impeachment inquiry.

It's the first time Atkinson has testified before the committee since last week's public release of the whistleblower complaint, which focuses on President Donald Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Atkinson briefed the committee behind closed doors earlier last month about the complaint, without revealing details about its substance, NBC News reported.

The since-released complaint alleges that White House tried to "lock down" all records of a July phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, because they were so concerned about what Trump said during the conversation. In the call, Trump asked the Ukrainian president to help investigate the Biden family's business dealings as well as matters related to the 2016 election.

The whistleblower, whose name and gender has not been released, lodged the complaint out of a stated belief that Trump was "using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country" in the 2020 election.

Atkinson had deemed the complaint an "urgent concern" that he was required by law to provide to the congressional intelligence committees. But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguirerefused to do so on the advice of the Justice Department, resulting in a standoff with Congress that ultimately resulted in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backing the formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

Atkinson, a former Justice Department lawyer appointed to this current position by Trump in 2017 and confirmed by the Senate last year, is appearing before the Intelligence Committee a day after the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, testified before several congressional committees about the administration's dealings with Ukraine.

Volker, who spoke to lawmakers for more than nine hours on Thursday, provided the committees with text messages that show U.S. ambassadors working to persuade Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating Trump's political opponents and explicitly linking the inquiry to whether Ukraine's president would be granted an official White House visit.

Atkinson's deposition also comes as House Democrats prepare to issue a subpoena to the White House on Friday for failing to turn over records related to Ukraine that have been requested since early September.