GOP votes to authorize subpoenas, depositions in Obama-era probe

Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted on Wednesday to greenlight subpoenas and depositions as part of an investigation into the FBI’s Russia probe and the Obama administration. 

The 8-6 vote along party lines authorizes Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Ginsburg lies in repose CHC leaders urge Senate to oppose Chad Wolf nomination  MORE (R-Wis.), the chairman of the committee, to issue a combination of subpoenas and set up closed-door depositions with approximately 40 individuals. 

The vote comes less than two months before the November elections, injecting fresh acrimony into the Wednesday committee meeting where Johnson accused Democrats of a “coordinated smear” against his probes. Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Postmaster general says postal service can't return mail-sorting machines The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (Mich.), the top Democrat on the panel, accused Republicans of a “partisan fishing expedition.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’m disappointed that our committee is once again meeting to discuss the authorization of subpoenas instead ... of the serious challenges facing Americans,” Peters said. “Your own public comments ... state that your desire to reinvestigate these matters demonstrates the alarming partisan nature of this investigation, which is designed to influence the presidential election.” 

The vote gives Johnson the power to set up depositions with dozens of officials he previously got authorization to subpoena in June.

Peters's efforts to delay the vote was defeated along party lines.

Those subpoenas ran into a snag in August, when Peters accused Johnson of violating the committee’s rules by trying to set up the interviews without support from Peters or a majority of the committee to formally issue the deposition notice.  

Johnson blasted Peters on Wednesday, accusing him of forcing the vote to authorize the depositions “based on an absurd interpretation of committee rules.” 

“Our investigation is focused on covering and revealing the truth, but Democrats seem intent at every turn to frustrate and interfere with our oversight efforts,” Johnson said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Wednesday’s vote also authorizes subpoenas of seven new individuals, including former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeJudge will not dismiss McCabe's case against DOJ Graham: Comey to testify about FBI's Russia probe, Mueller declined invitation Barr criticizes DOJ in speech declaring all agency power 'is invested in the attorney general' MORE and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.

The vote is the latest sign that Johnson is preparing to ramp up his probe into the Obama administration, including the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling, even as he is expected to release an interim report on his Biden probe as soon as next week.

Johnson is running two investigations with Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power The Hill's 12:30 Report: Ginsburg lies in repose Top GOP senators say Hunter Biden's work 'cast a shadow' over Obama Ukraine policy MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. 

One broadly touches on the FBI's investigation of Russia's 2016 election interference, the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations and leaks from the early days of the Trump White House.

The second unrelated investigation deals with the State Department under former President Obama, Ukraine policy and the Bidens.

The committee had been expected to vote to give Johnson authorization to subpoena Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, for questions related to Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company where Biden's son Hunter Biden previously served on the board, and "actual or apparent conflicts of interest with U.S.-Ukraine policy."

But Johnson pulled that vote, telling reporters that Brink had agreed to testify voluntarily.

It was unclear going into Wednesday's vote if Johnson would be able to get support to issue the new subpoenas and set up the dozens of depositions.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' MORE (R-Utah) was undecided and voiced concerns on Wednesday about Johnson’s inquiries. The investigation involving the Bidens, he said, had the “earmarks of a political exercise.”

“I’m fearful that comments made in the media recently have only confirmed that perspective. ... It’s not the legitimate role of government, or for Congress, or for taxpayer expense to be used in an effort to damage political opponents and therefore I am pleased that our votes today do not include additional authorizations relating to the, I’ll call it, Biden-Burisma investigation,” Romney said.

Johnson has repeatedly argued that his investigation involving Burisma Holdings and Hunter Biden is not aimed at undermining Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Fox News poll: Biden ahead of Trump in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio MORE.

But he’s increasingly discussed the forthcoming interim report on his investigation in terms of the damage it could do to Biden’s political future. Romney on Wednesday did not directly mention Johnson but appeared to be referring to his recent remarks.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Stay tuned. In about a week we're going to learn a whole lot more of Vice President Biden's fitness for office," Johnson told GOP activists in Wisconsin on Monday.

Johnson then told WCLO on Tuesday that “what our investigations are uncovering, I think, will reveal this is not somebody we should be electing president of the United States.”

The remarks sparked immediate backlash from the Biden campaign, who called it the latest sign from Johnson that the reason for his investigation isn’t congressional oversight but to go after Trump’s political enemies.

"Senator Johnson couldn't have brought about a more decisive collapse of his own credibility or his Kremlin-infected smear campaign if he had deliberately planned it. Johnson has spent months diverting his committee away from any legitimate oversight of the failed pandemic response ... [and] abusing taxpayer dollars to underwrite a foreign attack on our very sovereignty an attack predicated on a conclusively refuted, hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory that depends on Sen. Johnson himself being corrupt,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign.

Romney, on Wednesday, said that he supported the deposition notices and new subpoenas as part of the separate FBI probe, because Johnson had already gotten the authority in June to subpoena most of the 40 individuals.

“I think it’s also important that because this has such obvious political implications that the committee investigation focus on the specific wrongdoing alleged by the inspector general’s report,” Romney said.

“I will continue that support as long as it doesn’t fall into the realm of rank political undertaking,” Romney added. “I do believe it’s very important that the committees of Congress, and ours in particular, not fall into an increasing pattern that we’re seeing which is using taxpayer dollars and the power of Congress to do political work. That’s the role of campaigns.”

Updated at 11:44 a.m.