Senate Republicans issue first subpoena in Biden-Burisma probe
Senate Republicans issued their first subpoena on Wednesday as part of wide-ranging investigations tied to the Obama administration, deepening a battle in Congress with implications for this fall’s presidential race.
The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted along party lines to issue a subpoena for Blue Star Strategies, a firm with ties to Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the panel, has homed in on the U.S. firm as he probes Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings, where Biden — the son of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — was a member of the board until he stepped down in 2019.
The subpoena asks for records from Blue Star Strategies from Jan. 1, 2013, to the present “related to work for or on behalf of Burisma Holdings or individuals associated with Burisma.”
Johnson is also requesting an interview with top Blue Star officials to discuss the subpoena.
Senate Democrats fumed over Johnson’s decision to schedule the vote amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the panel, warned that the “extremely partisan investigation is pulling us apart.”
“This is not a serious bipartisan investigation in the tradition of this committee, and I do not believe we should be going down this road,” Peters said during the committee meeting.
He tried to table the subpoena vote until the committee could get a closed-door briefing with FBI and intelligence community officials, but the move was blocked by Republicans.
“This is not my choice to spend any amount of time on this vote. I would have issued the subpoenas quietly,” Johnson said.
He added that when the committee previously considered subpoenaing a former consultant for the firm there was a “bipartisan suggestion that if you want the records from Blue Star, why don’t you just subpoena Blue Star? I said, so I will, so that’s what we’re doing here.”
Democrats have warned for weeks, both publicly and privately, that GOP senators are using the panel to target President Trump’s political rivals and potentially inadvertently spread Russian misinformation.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said Wednesday that Republicans were trying to investigate “partisan nonsense and conspiracy theories.”
“There is much urgent work for this committee and the Senate as a whole to carry out. This markup is not that work, to put it politely,” Hassan said.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) added that Johnson had made a “unilateral” decision to pursue the subpoena.
“You made the decision to force a vote on a purely political matter that will do absolutely nothing for those at risk of contracting COVID-19,” Harris said, calling the subpoena a “political sideshow.”
Democrats say that Blue Star was willing to comply with Johnson’s request for documents without a subpoena — something Johnson disputed.
Karen Tramontano, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Blue Star Strategies, sent a letter to Johnson on Wednesday saying that they had been indicating to committee staff that they would cooperate.
“At every opportunity we have indicated to the committee that it is our intention to cooperate. At no time have we ever stated or indicated in any way that we would not cooperate. Therefore, we are puzzled, despite our willingness to cooperate, why the committee is proceeding to vote on a subpoena,” she wrote.
A spokesman for Johnson said the firm “has delayed our efforts for more than five months,” including not letting GOP staff speak with one of its attorneys.
“Their only real efforts came after we noticed this markup, and we know even those have been woefully incomplete,” the spokesman said.
Tensions flared in the committee on Wednesday as Johnson tried to move to the vote after allowing himself, Peters, Harris and Hassan to speak about the subpoena.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) then asked for five minutes to speak. Johnson said multiple times that he couldn’t understand Carper, who then yelled, “I ask for unanimous consent to speak for five minutes, please.”
Johnson then allowed Carper to speak, but warned that he would not get more than five minutes and told committee staff to “put the clock on.”
Republicans hold an 8-6 majority on the panel, allowing them to issue the subpoena despite opposition from Democrats as long as every GOP senator supported the move.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, was considered a vote to watch because he had previously raised concerns about investigations that appear “political.”
But Johnson said shortly before the committee vote that he expected every Republican to support his subpoena.
Romney told The Hill earlier this week that he was looking at Johnson’s subpoena request. The Utah senator voted for the subpoena on Wednesday via proxy.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said he was supporting Johnson’s investigation because “we needed to get to the truth about the Bidens’ relationship with Burisma.”
“These hearings will provide the Senate with the full picture,” he added.
Trump and some of his allies have floated a discredited narrative that Joe Biden tried to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin 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 — about corruption within Shokin’s office.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said Johnson is “running a political errand for Donald Trump” in the middle of the coronavirus health crisis, including trying to “resurrect a craven, previously debunked smear against Vice President Biden.”
“Then again, this is consistent with how Senator Johnson has callously downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak while the death toll rises,” Bates added. “Senator Johnson should be working overtime to save American lives — but instead he’s just trying to save the President’s job.”
Johnson is months into a probe with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on the Bidens. They wrote in a request for information sent earlier this year that they were looking at “potential conflicts of interest posed by the business activities of Hunter Biden and his associates during the Obama administration.”
Johnson said on Wednesday that he is still planning to issue a report on some of the findings soon.
“I’d like to get something out in the June time frame, personally, certainly before the August recess,” Johnson said.
But the Biden-Burisma probe is just one part of wide-ranging investigations being run out of the Senate.
Amid public calls from Trump, Republicans are increasingly embracing using their majority to investigate some of the biggest grievances of the president and his allies, including the Bidens, the Russian interference investigation and the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Trump, during a closed-door meeting Tuesday, urged Republicans to be “tough,” citing “Obamagate” — his unsubstantiated claim of crimes committed by the former president.
“The president said that on the issue of Crossfire Hurricane and FISA abuse that we’ve been acting like a bunch of weenies,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) after the meeting.
Grassley and Johnson, with help from key administration officials, are also probing the investigation of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn after the Justice Department dropped its case against him.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is set to have the Judiciary Committee vote on June 4 to issue a wide-ranging subpoena for documents and interviews with dozens of officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
The tactics have fueled tensions with Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday said Republicans were turning into the “conspiracy caucus.”
“They’re holding sham hearings about the family of the president’s political rivals. … They’re turning Senate committee rooms into the studio of ‘Fox & Friends,’ ” Schumer said, adding that “Trump’s wild conspiracy theories has overtaken just about every Senate Republican.”
— Updated at 1:31 p.m.