WASHINGTON — Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, was grilled behind closed doors on Capitol Hill Friday over his assessment that the whistleblower complaint now at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was credible.
“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,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement after committee members heard roughly seven hours of testimony.
Schiff said that based on the summary of the call the White House released last week detailing the phone conversation between President Donald Trump Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it is apparent Atkinson’s determination was “correct.”
“That call record shows that Trump pressured a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 election by investigating a political opponent. Those facts cannot be seriously contested,” Schiff said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are embracing Trump’s strategy of “deflection,” Schiff said, “by making the absurd claim that because a whistleblower contacted the committee seeking guidance, the committee cannot conduct an investigation into the complaint.”
“If that were true, no whistleblower could contact Congress, and no committee could conduct an investigation,” he said.
Trump and another Republicans have accused Schiff — without evidence — of orchestrating the complaint after it was reported that his aide was contacted by the whistleblower for consultation before the whistleblower filed the complaint within the intelligence community.
The future whistleblower, a CIA officer, came to the committee after he had already filed a complaint with the CIA general counsel, and was concerned that the complaint was not being properly handled, Democratic committee aides said.
Democratic committee aides told NBC News that what happened was rather routine, and no different from the two to three times a month an intelligence agency employee comes to them with concerns.
They said they did what they usually do in that situation: They instructed the future whistleblower to file a formal document with the inspector general, as called for in the law.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, told reporters Friday that he thought Schiff should be “disqualifiedfrom running an investigation where his committee — members or staff — are fact witnesses about contact with the whistleblower and the whistleblower process.” He added that Atkinson “can provide no information” about the contact committee Democrats had with the whistleblower prior to Atkinson’s involvement.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., ranking member on the Intelligence panel, declined several times to speak to reporters about Atkinson’s testimony. Atkinson also declined to answer questions from reporters.
This marked the first time Atkinson had testified before the committee since last week’s public release of the whistleblower complaint, which focuses on 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, but didn’t reveal details about its substance at the time, NBC News reported.
Upon emerging from Friday’s deposition, Illinois Democratic Reps. Mike Quigley and Raja Krishnamoorthi said they found Atkinson’s testimony useful.
“Today is very helpful in terms of fleshing out what we know about his investigation,” Krishnamoorthi told reporters. “He ran his own investigation to corroborate the whistleblower’s complaint and talk to witnesses and so forth. So we learned substantively what he learned.”
The congressman said Atkinson’s testimony “reinforces” what lawmakers had learned about a July phone call between call between Trump and Zelenskiy. 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, according to a detailed record released by the White House. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either of the Bidens.
“What the inspector general said last time was the whistleblower pulled the fire alarm,” Quigley said. “We have now seen the smoke and the fire.”
Quigley added that Atkinson “has a priority, as ours is, to protect the whistleblower.”
The whistleblower’s complaint alleges that White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy because they were so concerned about what Trump said during the conversation.
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 Maguire refused 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.
Julie Tsirkin contributed.
Court puts hold on Rodney Reed’s scheduled execution
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Friday afternoon stopped the scheduled execution of death row inmate and convicted murderer Rodney Reed.
The nonprofit Innocence Project, which has been representing Reed in his effort to stay alive, tweeted the court granted a stay of execution that was “indefinite.” A spokeswoman for the court said the stay ruling would be posted on its website shortly.
The move came after the state parole board voted unanimously Friday to recommend Gov. Greg Abbott delay the execution by 120 day. He was scheduled to be put to death next Wednesday.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, however, also asked that Abbott not commute Reed’s sentence to a lesser penalty. It’s unclear what the governor may decide, and his office did not immediately return a request for comment.
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The call to halt Reed’s execution by lethal injection has been building in recent weeks, gaining support from a bipartisan group of about 45 state lawmakers, outspoken celebrities, including Kim Kardashian West and Oprah Winfrey, and an online petition.
Reed, now 51, was found guilty by an all-white jury in the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old grocery store worker in central Texas. His lawyers have pointed to new witnesses who have come forward and forensic evidence that has been reevaluated to insist he at least deserves a new trial. That includes at least 11 people who have recently cast doubt on Reed’s conviction and, in some cases, implicated Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
The parole board’s recommendation comes as Reed’s legal team has multiple appeals and motions filed and pending along various legal tracks. His lawyers have asked Abbott, a Republican, to stop the execution. Abbott has not commented publicly on the issue.
The Supreme Court might also take up the case, reinvigorating Reed’s supporters, some of whom camped out overnight Thursday to hold vigils outside of the high court awaiting a decision.
“When the whole world watches, it’s going to be hard for someone to make a mistake,” Reed’s brother, Rodrick Reed, said during a rally Thursday night near the Supreme Court. “That gives us a lot of hope and a lot of confidence that the right thing will eventually come out of this.”
Last year, the high court had refused to review an earlier Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that rejected further DNA testing in the case — paving the way for Reed’s execution.
During Reed’s trial in 1998, prosecutors said he randomly encountered Stites on the road as she drove to work at a grocery store in Bastrop, east of Austin. After she stopped for him, they said, Reed raped and strangled Stites with her own belt, leaving her body in a wooded area. Stites was weeks away from getting married to Fennell, a police officer.
Semen was found inside Stites, and police matched the DNA to that of Reed, who was arrested a year later. Reed’s sperm had previously been collected as part of an unrelated sexual assault investigation.
Reed initially denied to investigators that he knew Stites, but later said they had been having a consensual sexual relationship, one that they tried to keep concealed because he is black and Stites was white.
An attorney for Fennell has denied his client’s involvement in Stites’ death.
Dennis Romero contributed.
Highlights from Yovanovitch's impeachment testimony
Trump asks Supreme Court to block House subpoena for his financial records
WASHINGTON — Lawyers for President Trump asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to put a hold on a subpoena from a House committeeseeking eight years of his financial documents.
The case may produce the first action by the justices on the growing number of legal battles over access to Donald Trump’s financial secrets. A lower court order upholding the subpoena takes effect on Nov. 20. So unless the Supreme Court acts quickly, the president’s accounting firm, Mazars, will be required to turn the material over.
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The Trump legal team told the justices in a court filing on Friday that if the lower court rulings are allowed to stand, any committee of Congress could subpoena any personal information it wants from a president.
“Given the temptation to dig up dirt on political rivals, intrusive subpoenas into personal lives of presidents will become our new normal in times of divided government — no matter which party is in power,” Trump’s team said.
The House Government Oversight committee issued the subpoena in April, ordering the accounting firm to turn over Trump-related financial documents covering 2011 through 2018. The committee said it acted after former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified that “Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.”
House Democrats said they need the documents to investigate whether the president accurately filled out required financial disclosure forms. But the Trump lawyers said the congressional subpoena power is limited to material needed to legislate, not to conduct criminal-style investigations. A federal judge and the Washington, D.C., court of appeals rejected the president’s efforts to stop the subpoena.
Lawyers for the House have argued that the subpoena presents no threat to the president’s ability to carry out his duties, because it is directed to his accountants doesn’t require him to do anything. In dissents, two appeals court judges said they disagreed. “The subpoena in substance targets his records,” said Gregory Katsas and Karen Henderson of the D.C. appeals court.
On Thursday, the president’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to grant their appeal in a separate case challenging a subpoena for his tax returns and other business records from the Manhattan district attorney. The Trump lawyers because a president cannot be indicted while in office, he is immune from any part of the criminal justice process.
While the two cases present different legal issues, the court could decide to consider them together. There is no deadline for the court to act.
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