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 BidenPoll: Bloomberg stalls after Vegas debate Bloomberg campaign: Vandalism at Tennessee office 'echoes language from the Sanders campaign and its supporters' Democratic strategist says Biden 'has to' get second place in Nevada 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 RaskinHouse Democrats launch probe into NIH and FBI suspecting Chinese Americans of espionage Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg do battle in New Hampshire 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. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Ahead of the meeting, there had been speculation that it could be tied to a whistleblower complaint about President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff 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) MenendezMenendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle 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 EngelOvernight Defense: Army says it isn't investigating Vindman | White House outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike | Service member dies in Africa Trump administration outlines legal justification for Soleimani strike Pompeo to testify on Iran in February MORE (D-N.Y.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCongress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff The Hill's Morning Report — Sanders, Dems zero in on Super Tuesday MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsTop Democrats demand answers on DHS plans to deploy elite agents to sanctuary cities House to vote next week on bill to create women's history museum The Hill's Morning Report - Icy moments between Trump, Pelosi mark national address 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 GiulianiKerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Giuliani worked for Dominican Republic candidate amid Ukraine efforts: report Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe 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 PompeoThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday Pompeo expects US-Taliban agreement to be signed on Feb. 29 The Hill's Morning Report — Sanders, Dems zero in on Super Tuesday 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.