Coronavirus pushes GOP’s Biden-Burisma probe to back burner
As the fallout from the coronavirus dominates Washington and the country, one high-profile item has fallen out of the spotlight: a GOP effort to investigate Hunter Biden and Ukraine gas company Burisma Holdings.
The slide to the back burner of the controversial probe comes as coronavirus cases in the United States have surged in recent weeks — from 2,224 on March 13 to more than 100,000 now, according to New York Times data — reshaping every aspect of American life, including the priorities of Congress.
Just over two weeks ago Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was talking about issuing his first subpoenas, but now, he acknowledged, that’s been put on hold as the Senate takes an extended recess until April 20.
“There’s not much we can do for the time being, is there?” Johnson said when asked about his subpoena plans. “It is what it is.”
Even before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the change to the chamber’s schedule, any action unrelated to the coronavirus had largely ground to a halt as lawmakers focused on passing back-to-back relief bills and tried, with mixed success, to practice social distancing.
The Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last held a public meeting March 11, according to the panel’s calendar, the same day that Trump would announce in an Oval Office address that he was halting travel from Europe for 30 days, among other steps.
Aides say staff-level work will continue but the limbo status for what was expected to be the investigation’s next phase underscores how quickly the virus reshaped conversations and plans on Capitol Hill.
“Our oversight team has continued their work on ongoing matters,” Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has joined with Johnson in the investigation, told The Hill.
He declined to say if they’ve gotten new documents from the administration in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, asked if Johnson still wanted to subpoena Blue Star Strategies, a U.S. firm with ties to Burisma, a committee aide noted that “nothing has changed on our end” but that “right now COVID is obviously the primary focus.”
Johnson added in the meantime “the staff members … assigned to this are still going over the information they’ve obtained. It’s unfortunate we can’t get those [Blue Star] records for the time being.”
Johnson and Grassley have sent out a flurry of letters. So far they said they’ve received responses from the Treasury and State departments, though they haven’t disclosed what was in the documents.
A source told The Hill that the GOP senators had also received a production of documents from the National Archives “in the last week or two.”
Grassley and Johnson had sent a letter last year asking for documents related to any White House meetings in 2016 between Obama administration officials, Ukrainian government representatives and Democratic National Committee officials.
Obama’s records won’t become public until 2022 under federal law. And he or his Presidential Records Act designee are able to place broad restrictions on access to the papers for up to 12 years after Obama left office, allowing them to vet whatever documents the GOP senators have gotten.
It isn’t just the GOP investigation into Hunter Biden and Burisma that has been influenced by the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
There have been no public Senate hearings in the past two weeks. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told CNN on Friday that while his panel was looking through its records to see what information it has about the coronavirus, “we’ve had to, of necessity, put most of the other work of the committee on hold.”
But it marks the latest setback for the GOP effort to investigate Hunter Biden, who has emerged as a top target for Trump and his allies.
The effort by Johnson, in particular, to use his gavel to investigate Hunter Biden as a piece of his larger investigation with Grassley has rankled Democrats, who view the move as an effort to try to hurt former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee.
“They will lie about anything. President Trump will lie about anything and so I’m expecting that they’ll use that lie or any other lie they can think of. And I’m hoping that my colleagues in the Senate will not be agents of a propaganda campaign,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told The Hill in a recent interview.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill that he viewed the GOP investigation as “200 percent political.”
“I think it’s scary that the committee that is charged with overseeing the security of this nation isn’t focusing all of its resources right now on the literal crisis that is consuming the country. That’s maybe what concerns me maybe more than anything else right now. I think that the Homeland Security should be focused on protecting the homeland instead of making itself an arm of the president’s reelection campaign,” he said.
Johnson and Grassley have defended their probe arguing that they had questions about Hunter Biden before former Vice President Joe Biden jumped into the presidential race. But Johnson also sparked backlash from Biden’s campaign earlier this month when he argued that Democratic primary voters should be interested in any potential findings from his investigation.
“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 told reporters earlier this month.
The probe comes amid a discredited narrative that suggested Joe Biden tried to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin in an effort 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.
Johnson was initially going to try to subpoena Andrii Telizhenko, a former consultant to Blue Star. Because Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the panel, objected to the subpoena, Johnson scheduled a committee vote for March 11. But he canceled hours before the committee meeting citing “discrepancies” in briefings given to Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members and staff.
Johnson then shifted to saying he would subpoena Blue Star directly. But Peters notified Johnson in a letter on March 17 — days after Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus — that he would oppose that subpoena as well. That meant if Johnson was going to successfully subpoena Blue Star he would need to force a committee vote, something he wasn’t able to do before the Senate left town.
“This is a misuse of committee resources, especially at a time when we must focus on the work that advances the health, safety and economic security of Americans consistent with our committee’s mission. Your subpoena request does not advance that work,” Peters wrote in the letter.
Democrats privately and publicly warned that pursuing the investigation would lead to the panel unintentionally circulating Russian misinformation.
Kaine noted that he made an “impassioned plea” to his colleagues during a closed-door election security briefing this month, urging them to “‘read a classified memo about this character that you’re dealing with. … You’re about to bring the Senate into disrepute as part of a disinformation campaign.’”