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 BidenProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters National Association of Police Organizations endorses Trump Hillicon Valley: Twitter accounts of Obama, Biden, Musk, others compromised | U.S. announces sanctions on Huawei, citing human rights abuses | Pompeo 'confident' foreign adversaries will interfere in elections 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 start cracking down on masks for lawmakers Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won't wear masks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems, GOP dig in on police reform ahead of House vote 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 TrumpProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Ilhan Omar: GOP response to calls for police reform 'was vicious' White House considers sweeping travel ban on members, families of the Chinese Communist Party: report 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) MenendezBottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski 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: Esper announces new steps on diversity in military but memo silent on Confederate flag | Defense bill amendment would sanction Russians over bounties | US accuses Russia of planting landmines in Libya How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel Massachusetts Democrat calls for Voice of America chief to resign MORE (D-N.Y.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffStone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Overnight Defense: US formally rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims | House set to consider defense policy bill next week | 57 injured as firefighters battle warship blaze Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to reopening schools MORE (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland 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 GiulianiOusted Manhattan prosecutor Geoffrey Berman to teach at Stanford Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself Davis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance 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 PompeoHillicon Valley: Twitter accounts of Obama, Biden, Musk, others compromised | U.S. announces sanctions on Huawei, citing human rights abuses | Pompeo 'confident' foreign adversaries will interfere in elections Pompeo says China will 'absolutely' pay a price for pandemic Pompeo says he is 'confident' other countries will meddle in 2020 elections 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.