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GOP chairman subpoenas former Obama official linked to Steele dossier

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocrat announces 2022 bid for Ron Johnson's seat Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day MORE (R-Wis.) has subpoenaed a former State Department official linked to the controversial research dossier about then-presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE

A source confirmed to The Hill on Thursday that Johnson had issued a subpoena for Jonathan Winer, a former State Department employee. Johnson had warned earlier this month that he was preparing to compel Winer’s testimony as part of the panel's ongoing investigations. 

Winer didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. But he is the first person to be subpoenaed by Johnson as part of a broad investigation spanning the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations including digging into the so-called Steele dossier.  

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Winer, in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, confirmed that former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele approached him in September 2016 with intelligence reports claiming that Trump was compromised by the Russians. Winer distilled the dossier into a two-page summary that he shared with former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. 

In June, Republicans on Johnson’s Senate panel gave him broad subpoena authority for more than 30 individuals as well as documents from the FBI, State Department and director of national intelligence. 

But the effort by Johnson to get Winer to appear behind closed doors has already hit a snag. Committee leadership is at loggerheads over if Johnson is required to get sign-off from ranking member Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Jaime Harrison raises million in two weeks for South Carolina Senate bid BlackPAC rolls out Senate race endorsements for the first time MORE (D-Mich.) to authorize a formal notification of the deposition, instead of just looping the Democratic senator in on the notice sent to Winer. 

Peters, in a letter obtained by The Hill, told Johnson that his attempt to depose Winer was a "direct and clear violation" of the committee rules. 

"The subpoena for his personal appearance for a deposition is therefore unenforceable," he added. 

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The Michigan Democrat points to the committee's rules which state "notices for the taking of depositions shall be authorized and issued by the Chairman, with the approval of the Ranking Minority Member of the Committee."

If a ranking member disapproves, the notice for the deposition then has to be approved by a simple majority vote of the committee, according to the rules on the panel’s website

"This notice is required because it communicates to the witness that the staff and members taking the deposition have the full authority of the Committee to do so. No such notice has been made or can be made without authorization. ... Should you consider that deposition notice to Mr. Winer to constitute notice to me of your intent to notice Mr. Winer’s deposition, I disapprove," Peters added in the letter. 

The June vote gave Johnson the authority to subpoena Winer for a deposition or the production of documents. If he has to hold a committee vote to formally authorize the deposition, that could delay it for weeks. The Senate is currently in the middle of a three-week recess and will not return to Washington, D.C., until Sept. 8. 

Johnson, in a tweet, accused Peters of trying to "undermine my investigation with absurd process arguments to delay or derail'' the subpoena. 

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Peters "wants to keep the American people in the dark by not letting us ask Jonathan Winer about his correspondence with Steele. Winer admitted to destroying his Steele-related records & now Peters wants to make sure Winer isn’t questioned," Johnson tweeted. 

Johnson is months into two controversial investigations that have been a growing source of tension on and off Capitol Hill. 

One of the probes involves the Obama-era State Department, Obama-era Ukraine policy including work done by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE and his son Hunter Biden and any contact between the Obama administration and Biden’s associates with Burisma Holdings, where Hunter Biden was on the board. Johnson has subpoenaed Blue Star Strategies, a U.S. firm with ties to Burisma, as part of that probe. 

The second is wide-ranging and broadly covers the transition process between the Obama and Trump administrations, but delves into everything from the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia's election meddling and its offshoots to leaks from the early days of Trump’s presidency.  

Winer is considered a witness in the second investigation. Johnson subpoenaed the FBI for documents last week, marking the first overall subpoena out of the probe. 

Democrats have for months said they view the investigations as efforts to undermine Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee. They say the probes could potentially spread Russian disinformation and break the committee's bipartisan traditions. 

"You claim you seek to find out whether others broke the rules governing their conduct in pursuit of an investigation; and yet in pursuit of your investigation you propose to break the rules governing our conduct," Peters wrote in the letter. 

Johnson published a lengthy letter last week defending the investigations, saying that he had been "patiently trying to work with these agencies and individuals on a voluntary basis" and accused Democrats of spreading misinformation.

"Democrats are falsely accusing Chairman Grassley and me of the very behavior they themselves are engaging in," he wrote, referring to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBarrett confirmation stokes Democrats' fears over ObamaCare On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes MORE (R-Iowa). "They have introduced, and made public, Russian disinformation into our investigatory record; we have not."