By Jordain Carney, THE HILL, 08/04/20
Tensions are ramping up over a GOP probe into the Obama administration that focuses, in part, on Hunter Biden, the son of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Months into the controversial Senate Republican investigation, frustration appears to be boiling over as both sides step up their attacks in the growing shadow of the November elections.
Democrats, the Biden campaign and their outside group allies are increasingly going public with their concerns over the investigation, which they worry could spread Russian disinformation. They are targeting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has been spearheading the effort.
“He’s spending his time on partisan investigations instead of actually doing the people’s business. … This type of conduct is unacceptable and needs to be called out,” Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project, told reporters during a call on Monday.
The Democratic-aligned group launched late last week, making Johnson its first target. It released a report late last week on his stock sales and a poll on Monday showing that among Wisconsin voters, just 30 percent thought the investigation that involves, in part, Hunter Biden, should be a top priority for Johnson’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
That compares to 35 percent who thought it should be a low priority and 31 percent who thought it should not be a priority.
After being told that Johnson was “leading the probe into Hunter Biden,” 50 percent said it made them less favorable toward Johnson.
Johnson has said repeatedly his investigation is not centered on the Bidens and is not being driven by the elections. But some of his requests for information have centered on Hunter Biden’s travel records, contacts between Joe Biden and Ukraine and Hunter Biden’s business associates.
“Other people talk about this being centered on Joe and Hunter Biden. It’s not. We’re taking a look at the corruption of the transition process, and we’re taking a look at those conflicts of interest and how that might have affected, for example, policies coming out of the State Department. So the materials we’re reviewing come from the State Department, they come from the National Archives, they come from a Democrat-led lobbying firm that a Ukrainian national worked for and gave him access to very high levels of the Obama administration,” Johnson told WISN, a Wisconsin TV station, in an interview that aired on Sunday.
Johnson is hinting that he will soon ask for new subpoenas as part of his probe and that he’s preparing to release an interim report by Sept. 15.
“We’ve kind of set a target date for Sept. 15. And I’ve said, ‘OK guys, that has to be hard and fast,’” Johnson told The Hill last week, adding that we’ll “probably start seeing some subpoenas being issued.”
Top congressional Democrats sent a request last month asking FBI Director Christopher Wray for a briefing over concerns about Russia attempting to meddle in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats pointed to Johnson’s investigation as a source of their concerns, and in particular that he could be receiving information from Ukrainians with ties to the Kremlin that were aimed at discrediting Biden and spreading Russian misinformation.
“We are gravely concerned, in particular, that Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November,” they wrote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of the four Democrats on the letter to Wray, said if individuals tied to the Kremlin are trying to spread disinformation aimed at discrediting Biden, the intelligence community needs to be upfront about it.
“Now, that could be unwitting on the senator’s part. I don’t know what he knows. And that’s why we want the intelligence community to tell the American people what they know. Not jeopardizing sources and methods, I’ve been involved in intelligence for 25 years. We can’t do that, we can’t ever do that. But there is plenty they could be telling the American people, and including the United States senators who may be associating with some of these people,” she told CNN on Monday.
Democrats raised alarms after former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Onyshchenko told The Washington Post last month that he gave Johnson’s committee information, including tapes.
Johnson, during the interview with a Wisconsin TV station, said he had not received the tapes from Onyshchenko.
“First of all, completely false charges, and Democrats know they’re false. When reports surfaced whether or not we received some of these audiotapes, we told our Democrat minority, ‘No, we haven’t received them.’ And that’s the truth, and yet they continue to push this story,” Johnson said.
Pressed on whether he had received information from pro-Russia Ukrainians, Johnson stressed that he had not gotten the audio tapes but “we are getting information from a variety of sources.”
“Before we ever use it, we verify and make sure that it’s accurate and true before we’d ever publish anything,” he said.
Johnson separately told The Hill that he had not received a warning from the administration or the intelligence community about the possibility that Russian-aligned individuals were trying to use his committee to spread disinformation.
Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, are also accusing congressional Democrats of leaking information to undermine the probe.
“We hope that you will join us in rejecting any and all efforts by foreign entities to interfere in our elections, and refrain from using this issue as a political weapon to target investigations — investigations grounded in fact and that fall squarely within the Committees’ jurisdiction to safeguard our homeland security and financial systems — with which you happen to disagree,” they wrote in a letter to Democratic Sens. Gary Peters (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).
The GOP investigation comes as Trump and his allies have seized on a discredited narrative that suggested Biden, when he was vice president, tried to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect his son. No evidence has indicated that either of the Bidens engaged in criminal wrongdoing, and there was widespread concern at the time — both internationally and from a bipartisan coalition in Congress, including Johnson — about corruption within Shokin’s office.
But the latest round of infighting has provided an opening to the Biden campaign to go on offense against Johnson’s probe.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, accused Johnson of “hypocrisy” given that he previously signed a bipartisan letter urging Poroshenko to tackle corruption within his government.
“Whether 2020 Ron Johnson will call 2016-2019 Ron Johnson as a witness remains unclear,” Bates said. “But what’s especially shocking, and historically unprecedented, is that Senator Johnson is diverting his committee from oversight of the failing response to the pandemic … and is instead facilitating a foreign influence operation to undermine our democracy.”
Cristina Marcos contributed