A Senate committee voted on Wednesday to authorize a subpoena as part of a Republican-led investigation targeting former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
The party-line vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee came amid vigorous objections from Democrats, who have accused their GOP counterparts of aiding Russian disinformation efforts and improperly using the Senate’s resources to boost President Donald Trump’s political fortunes.
Wednesday’s vote authorizes the committee’s chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), to subpoena Blue Star Strategies, a Democratic public-relations firm that did consulting work for Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company whose board Hunter Biden sat on. Johnson’s probe focuses on allegations that Blue Star Strategies sought to leverage Biden’s position on the board in order to influence matters at the Obama-era State Department.
“The question I would ask is, what is everybody worried about?” Johnson said. “If there’s nothing there, we’ll find out there’s nothing there. But if there’s something there, the American people need to know that.”
The subpoena seeks documents from the firm in addition to a deposition for its CEO, Karen Tramontano.
Tramontano sent a letter to Johnson Wednesday morning asserting that the firm had expressed a “willingness to cooperate.”
“At no time have we ever stated or indicated in any way that we would not cooperate,” Tramontano said, adding that she was “puzzled” at the committee’s decision to proceed with the vote.
A spokesman for Johnson rebutted those claims, saying the firm “delayed our efforts for more than five months, and even refused to let our staff speak to their attorney until last week.” The spokesman added that Blue Star Strategies only signaled a willingness to cooperate after the panel announced the subpoena vote last week.
Trump has openly encouraged the Senate’s investigation, and last year he was impeached by the House on charges that he inappropriately pressured Ukraine’s president to announce an investigation into the Bidens over Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma. The president was later acquitted by the Senate.
Democrats have said the committee’s investigation into Hunter Biden threatens the integrity of the 2020 election and undermines U.S. national security, arguing that it could aid Russian intelligence and the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts.
Some Republicans have expressed similar concerns over the source of the allegations about the Bidens, though the vast majority of GOP senators have, in recent weeks, endorsed the committee’s probe.
The GOP-led effort comes as the president and his allies intensify their scrutiny of Democrats and the Obama administration over claims that Trump and his associates were improperly targeted by the outgoing Obama White House.
That campaign included the release of a declassified list last week that included the names of high-level Obama administration officials who might have been involved in efforts that “unmasked” former national security adviser Michael Flynn, including Joe Biden. National security officials can ask to divulge the names of individuals involved in conversations subject to government surveillance, a common practice known as “unmasking.”
Democrats vehemently protested the vote on Wednesday, arguing that the Homeland Security panel should instead focus on more immediate challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic.
“At a time when Americans need us to work together, this extremely partisan investigation is pulling us apart,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the committee. “This is not a serious bipartisan investigation in the tradition of this committee. And I do not believe we should be going down this dangerous road.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was even harsher in his criticisms, saying that Senate Republicans “want to dive into the deepest muck of right-wing conspiracy to invent scapegoats for the president to use in his re-election campaign.”
Peters and the other Democrats on the panel had requested defensive briefings from the FBI and the intelligence community ahead of the vote. During Wednesday’s meeting, the committee rejected Peters’ motion to delay the subpoena vote until senators receive those briefings.
In March, the FBI’s foreign influence task force briefed committee aides on the initial target of the subpoena, Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat who was a consultant for Blue Star Strategies. After that briefing, Johnson ultimately changed the target of the subpoena to the firm itself amid widespread concerns about Telizhenko’s credibility.
Telizhenko has come under scrutiny over unsubstantiated claims of coordination between the Ukrainian government and the Democratic National Committee in 2016.
That same month, lawmakers clashed over the committee’s Biden investigation during a classified all-senators briefing focused on election security. According to sources familiar with the briefing, several Democratic senators pressed Johnson on the Biden investigation and accused him of aiding Russian disinformation efforts.
Johnson has said he plans to release an interim report on his panel’s Biden investigation over the summer, leading to charges that he is seeking to influence the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Johnson has rejected those claims, and on Wednesday he accused democrats of “grandstanding.”
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, accused Senate Republicans of seeking to run a “political errand” for the president.
“Senator Johnson should be working overtime to save American lives — but instead he’s just trying to save the president’s job,” Bates said.