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Dems say State watchdog turned over 'packet of propaganda'

Democrats say the State Department watchdog used a closed-door briefing on Wednesday to give them "conspiracy theories" tied to Ukraine, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE

"It's essentially a packet of propaganda and disinformation and spreading conspiracy theories. Those conspiracy theories have been widely debunked and discredited," Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession MORE (D-Md.) told reporters after an hourlong briefing with State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

The closed-door, hour-long briefing was part of a hastily assembled meeting requested by the State Department watchdog. 

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Ahead of the meeting, there had been speculation that it could be tied to a whistleblower complaint about President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president, which is at the forefront of the impeachment probe. 

Instead, Democrats say the packet of documents handed over by the State Department watchdog mentions Biden and his son Hunter Biden, Yovanovitch and CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that investigated breaches at the DNC in the lead up to the 2016 election.

"They appear to contain long-debunked theories and false statements about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and one of President Trump’s political opponents," said Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Judge whose son was killed by gunman: 'Federal judiciary is under attack' Emergency housing assistance for older adults needed now MORE (D-N.J.), whose staff attended the briefing. 

"These documents provide further evidence of a concerted, external effort to conduct a disinformation campaign against a career U.S ambassador, who has been the subject of baseless attacks, including by the president himself," he added. 

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelRep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel Democrats elect Meeks as first Black Foreign Affairs chairman The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates MORE (D-N.Y.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsWe must act on lowering cost of prescription drugs Voters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Md.) released a joint statement on Wednesday evening saying the briefing and documents "raise troubling questions about apparent efforts inside and outside the Trump Administration to target specific officials."

"These documents also reinforce concern that the President and his allies sought to use the machinery of the State Department to further the President’s personal political interests," they added. 

It's unclear where the documents came from, though Democrats quickly made clear after the briefing that they suspected Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiHow Trump's election lawsuits became his worst nightmare Michigan voter fraud hearing goes viral for alleged flatulence, unruly witness Trump hits Barr over voter fraud remarks: 'He hasn't looked' MORE, Trump's personal attorney, was involved. 

Giuliani said on Wednesday evening that he was responsible for some of the information in the packet given to Congress, including providing allegations against Biden.

“They told me they were going to investigate it,” Giuliani told CNN, adding that Pompeo called him after receiving the information.

A Democratic source familiar with the briefing said that the documents came from the White House to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo imposes visa restrictions on Chinese officials over 'intimidation' tactics Israel's new Gulf relations give Biden's team a new Middle East hub Pompeo knocks Turkey in NATO speech: report MORE. The paperwork was organized in folders from Trump hotels and included together in an envelope labeled "White House."

"Those folders contained notes from interviews that took place at Rudy Giuliani’s NYC office with various Ukrainians about debunked conspiracies related to Ukraine. This was just another attempt by the White House to peddle Rudy Giuliani conspiracy theories," the source added.

Republicans have doubled down on calls for an investigation into Biden's role in the ouster of a Ukraine prosecutor in 2016, despite no evidence of wrongdoing.

The material shared with staffers and Raskin, the only lawmaker in the meeting, arrived at the State Department in May addressed to Pompeo. It's unclear who beyond the inspector general that Pompeo shared it with.

Schiff, Engel and Cummings said in their joint statement that the inspector general told lawmakers that he interviewed Thomas Ulrich Brechbuhl, Pompeo's counselor. Brechbuhl told the watchdog that "the packet ‘came over,’ and that Brechbuhl presumed it was from the White House." 

A spokesperson for the State Department watchdog didn't respond to a request for comment.

"We also need to understand Secretary Pompeo’s role, given that it appears that he discussed these documents with at least one of his top aides and that the documents were distributed at the highest levels of the State Department," Menendez said.

Raskin noted that the materials came in an envelope addressed to Pompeo with "White House" written on the front, but the lawmaker said it was unclear if it was actually from the White House.  

"The real question is, where did it come from?" Raskin asked. "It's clear that whoever put it together was attempting to advance exactly the storyline that Mr. Giuliani would like to be advancing." 

Raskin said that if the documents did not come directly from the White House, he thought they might have come from Giuliani. He stressed that he was making a guess and that the State Department watchdog did not mention Giuliani. 

"If it really did not come directly from the White House, I would guess that it was Giuliani. ... Giuliani's name is all over it," Raskin said. "Somebody should ask Giuliani if he knows anything about this."

The briefing comes as House Democrats want to speak with five current and former State Department officials as part of their impeachment inquiry, including Yovanovitch. 
 
The State Department inspector general told staffers that they were briefing them in light of the whistleblower complaint, though staffers appeared mystified about what the connection was to their ongoing impeachment inquiry. 
 
Raskin characterized the documents as an "irrelevant distraction from the matter at hand." 
 
A staffer who attended the meeting said that the State Department watchdog had simply handed them the stack of papers. 
 
"Because everyone was confused," the staffer added when asked why that would take an hour. "It was a very strange meeting." 
 
--Maggie Miller contributed 
 
Updated: 7:15 p.m.