As Biden surges, GOP Ukraine probe moves to the forefront

A GOP probe into Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian gas company Burisma is picking up speed on Capitol Hill as former Vice President Joe Biden gains new momentum in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Republicans argue the investigation, spearheaded by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), isn’t political and is broader than just Ukraine. But the effort threatens to put the former vice president back in the hot seat at a time when his campaign is on the rebound.

Even as votes were still being tallied from Super Tuesday races, where Biden staged what amounted to a come-from-behind victory, Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced he would hold a vote next week on a subpoena of a former executive from a firm with ties to Burisma.

“We’re proceeding down this path,” Johnson said Wednesday. “If there’s wrongdoing, the American people need to know it. If there is no wrongdoing or nothing significant, the American people need to understand that as well.”

Johnson said his investigation isn’t about the 2020 election, and that it wasn’t “targeting the Bidens.” But he also said his committee could issue an “initial report” within a month or two, guaranteeing the issue stays in the headlines further into the primary season.

“If things are breaking now, I can’t control that. But these are questions that Joe Biden has never adequately answered. And if I were a Democrat primary voter, I would want these questions satisfactorily answered before I cast my final vote,” Johnson added.

Johnson’s decision to push forward with an investigation sparked tensions with Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Peters said Wednesday that he doesn’t know of any Democrat who would support Johnson’s subpoena effort.

“Let’s focus on the work at hand, which is protecting the homeland,” Peters told reporters. “This investigation should not be part of what we’re doing in Homeland Security.”

This isn’t the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has been the subject of a congressional investigation. In the lead-up to and during the 2016 campaign, Republican chairmen investigated the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, which took place when Hillary Clinton was secretary of State. House Republicans filed their final report and shut down the Benghazi Committee roughly a month after the 2016 election.

Clinton’s campaign was also dogged by a months-long trickle of information coming out of the FBI’s investigation into her use of a private email server from when she was at the State Department.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said Johnson’s comments Wednesday underscored that “Republicans recognize Joementum is very real.”

“Senator Johnson just accidentally did us an enormous favor by explicitly admitting that he is abusing congressional authority in a manner that would make the Founding Fathers spin in their graves,” Bates said in a statement.

“We already knew that Donald Trump is terrified of facing Joe Biden — because he got himself impeached by trying to force a foreign country to spread lies about the Vice President on behalf of his reelection campaign. Now, Senator Johnson just flat out conceded that this is a ham-handed effort to manipulate Democratic primary voters,” Bates added.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, suggested Johnson was talking about a subpoena just to keep the issue in the news.

“It’s totally predictable,” Durbin said. “His concern is to get you to ask me a question that you have to write a story about.”

Durbin added that he was “disappointed” but not “surprised” because he had been “following Ron on this issue.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said his colleagues shouldn’t “knowingly or unknowingly do the work of the Russians.”

Trump and his GOP allies have sought to tie Joe Biden’s push in 2016 for the dismissal of Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to Hunter Biden’s business interests in the country. They’ve also argued that allowing Biden to work on Ukraine policy while his son was on the board of Burisma was a significant conflict of interest.

Fact-checkers have debunked claims that Joe Biden was acting with his son’s interest in mind when pushing for Shokin’s removal, and there’s no evidence that either Biden engaged in any criminal wrongdoing.

The decision to investigate the Bidens sparked signs of division among Republicans earlier this year, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell (R-Ky.) signaled a hands-off approach when asked last month if Republicans would target the Bidens following Trump’s impeachment trial. 

“We don’t have a dictatorship over in the Senate,” McConnell said at the time. “I don’t instruct the committee chairmen as to what to take a look at.”

Still, some Republican senators are backing Johnson’s decision to try to force the subpoena as a legitimate line of inquiry.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of Johnson’s panel, said he would vote for the subpoena.

“You know, I think if a vice president actually stepped in to stop an investigation of a company that was paying his son … that would be enormous,” Paul said when asked if he thought voters should find out more ahead of the election.

“I think we ought to get to the truth of the matter with it, somebody should investigate it,” Paul added when asked if the Bidens should be brought in to testify.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally, argued that reporters wouldn’t be asking about the appearance of political interference if the candidate being investigated was a Republican.

“Nobody would be asking me, ‘Does it create an impression for Democrats?’ if they were doing something political. There’s an obvious conflict of interest here. I’m not saying Joe Biden is corrupt, far from it. But he had knowledge that his son was sitting on the most corrupt board in the Ukraine while he was trying to clean up the Ukraine. We’re going to hold him accountable for that,” Graham said.

Graham had planned to do his own investigation into Hunter Biden, but said earlier this year that he dropped the idea after Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) warned him about potential misinformation coming out of Ukraine.

Asked on Tuesday if he had concerns, Graham responded, “I’m worried about making sure whatever comes out of the Ukraine is vetted, and I’m sure it will be.”

Graham is running his own investigation into potential abuse of the court associated with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, originating from the Obama administration, and held his first closed-door deposition this week. But he noted Tuesday that he’s also still interested in conversations within the State Department about Hunter Biden and Burisma and “wants to find out what they did or didn’t do.”

Johnson and Grassley have been digging into the Bidens and Ukraine for months, as one facet of a larger years-long investigation about potential misconduct during the Obama administration.

Johnson sent a letter to committee members on Sunday saying he wanted to subpoena Andrii Telizhenko, a former consultant for Blue Star Strategies, a U.S. firm that Johnson said in a letter to committee members on Sunday has ties to Burisma.

The timing of the letter raised eyebrows because it was just a day after Biden’s decisive victory in South Carolina, which added a new boost of momentum to his campaign. But Johnson initially alerted Peters in a Feb. 24 letter that he wanted to issue the subpoena.

Asked about the appearance of the Senate investigating President Trump’s political rival, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said “the wheels were in motion on that well before his reemergence” and predicted that it would be a part of his presidential campaign.

“It’s part of the former vice president’s record,” Thune said. “The committees of jurisdiction that have those authorities have been talking about this for quite a while. So I don’t think it’s really a new development.”

“The thing that I think probably more than anything else that makes it a line of legitimate inquiry for senators is just how prominent the issue of corruption in Ukraine has been. It was such a big part of the discussion surrounding the impeachment process,” Thune added. “To think that this isn’t going to be debated and talked about for the next many months would be naive.”

Tags Burisma Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Donald Trump Gary Peters Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Thune Lindsey Graham Mark Warner Rand Paul Richard Burr Ron Johnson Ukraine

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