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A key Senate committee is vowing to press forward with its investigation targeting former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, despite logistical challenges posed by the global coronavirus pandemic.
The probe, which Democrats vigorously oppose, has fueled tension among the Senate’s ranks, even breaking out into a rare and previously unreported verbal altercation between senators during a classified briefing.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Republican-led inquiry was entering a critical phase last month when senators dropped all nonessential work to focus on delivering economic and medical relief as the coronavirus reached a crisis point in the United States. The Senate is not due back in Washington until April 20 at the earliest.
“While the chairman is primarily focused on the once-in-a-generation crisis we’re experiencing, our oversight staff is continuing to push ahead with their work. Nothing has changed in our long-term plans for our investigations,” said Austin Altenburg, a spokesman for the committee’s chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).
In fact, a Senate staffer working on the probe explicitly told one witness’ legal team several weeks ago — just before the wave of lockdowns — that the coronavirus pandemic would not impede the committee’s probe, according to a source familiar with the matter.
And less than a month ago, a top-secret briefing centered on 2020 election security spiraled into a combative and partisan snipe-fest when Democratic senators began asking about the Biden investigation. It was a reflection of the widespread uneasiness surrounding the probe that was apparent even before the coronavirus pandemic became senators’ top priority.
The investigation centers on Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and allegations that a Democratic public-affairs firm sought to leverage Biden’s role to influence State Department policies under the Obama administration. The claims, which Democrats wholly reject, fueled President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to look into the matter — and Republican senators are investigating the issue as the elder Biden is almost certain to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in the coming weeks.
A Biden campaign spokesperson said the chairman should instead be focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, and called the probe "an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign."
Johnson, who has said his probe has nothing to do with the presidential election, plans to release an interim report soon on the committee’s investigation. But with senators scattered in their home states, much of the panel’s non-coronavirus work is on hold.
For example, senators are unable to review sensitive documents, many of which are permanently housed in the Senate’s classified facilities, or receive defensive briefings that the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, has demanded. And committee members have yet to vote on a subpoena targeting the public-relations firm which did consulting work for Burisma, Blue Star Strategies — indefinitely delaying lawmakers’ ability to obtain documents viewed as important to the investigation. Additionally, large swaths of Senate staffers are working from home, significantly limiting their access to information.
A Republican senator, granted anonymity to candidly discuss the matter, posited that the probe is no longer a “priority,” despite assurances from Johnson’s office, and said lawmakers hadn’t received new information recently about it.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak consumed senators’ schedules and forced them to leave Washington for longer than planned, there were already indications that the investigation was facing setbacks.
Last month, before the coronavirus began spreading rapidly in the U.S., Johnson decided to scrap initial plans for a full committee vote on a subpoena to Andrii Telizhenko — a former consultant for Blue Star Strategies — due to concerns about his credibility. GOP senators initially sought information from Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat, because he claimed to have been tasked with digging up dirt on Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Telizhenko told POLITICO that he remains in contact with the committee and last shared documents with investigators a few weeks ago. Those documents included information about his work with the Ukrainian embassy and other issues the committee is investigating, including Blue Star.
“If everything’s going forward, it should go forward,” Telizhenko said. “Not only this committee’s work, but I think other committees are also doing their job in other spheres and nobody’s criticizing that.”
Telizhenko also said he is not aware of senators having concerns about his credibility. "From what I understand there is no credibility issue, there is an issue of politicizing the information from the intel community by one political party," he said.
Telizhenko also said that he recently told the committee that U.S. officials communicated to him through unofficial channels that his visa might soon be revoked. Telizhenko said that another Ukrainian official who has helped Rudy Giuliani investigate the Bidens, a parliamentarian named Andrii Derkach, recently had his visa revoked. Derkach was a member of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and has long pushed allegations about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Derkach told POLITICO that the U.S. embassy in Kyiv sent him an email revoking the visa and did not say why the decision was made. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Ahead of the scheduled vote to subpoena Telizhenko on March 11, the FBI’s foreign influence task force briefed committee aides about him, according to a Senate aide. The briefing in particular touched on Telizhenko’s unsubstantiated claims about coordination between the Ukrainian government and the Democratic National Committee in 2016 — allegations often pushed without evidence by Trump and some of his allies.
A day earlier, U.S. intelligence officials briefed all senators on the federal government’s election security efforts for the 2020 contests. During that briefing, according to four sources familiar with the matter, senators asked FBI Director Christopher Wray about Telizhenko in the context of Russia’s efforts to sow disinformation in the U.S. electoral system. According to another person briefed on the interaction, the initial questions centered on whether Telizhenko was an unreliable actor who was taking part in that disinformation campaign.
Democrats have said the investigation targeting Hunter Biden threatens the integrity of the 2020 election and undermines U.S. national security, saying it could aid Russian intelligence.
The briefing also featured several back-and-forth interactions between senators, which is highly unusual for a top-secret briefing of this nature, according to a person briefed on it. Johnson engaged directly with some of his colleagues, added the person, who called it “combative” and “personal.” Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) were among the senators who expressed concern during the briefing about the Senate’s continued pursuit of the Burisma allegations, sources said.
“Sen. Tester expressed concern over the reliance on reportedly untrustworthy foreign nationals and cautioned his colleagues against playing politics with national security,” said a spokeswoman for Tester.
Aaron Jacobs, a spokesman for Hassan, declined to discuss details of the classified meeting but said Hassan believes the Homeland Security panel “should not play a role in enabling” Russian interference in the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, the delayed timeline for the investigation makes it likely that any information related to Hunter Biden could be released closer to Election Day. Democrats have accused Johnson of seeking to harm the former vice president’s general-election prospects, citing the chairman’s comments about the need for Democratic primary voters to know the full extent of Hunter Biden’s involvement on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
The investigation itself appeared to ramp up after Biden swept several state primary contests, beginning with the South Carolina primary at the end of February.
“I frankly think that that is a line of inquiry that has already been pursued over and over and over. And not a single credible journalistic outlet has concluded that the former vice president did anything wrong,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has endorsed Biden. “And so, they can keep pushing that narrative and keep trying to bring that up and try to make that work.”
When Johnson canceled the panel’s vote on a subpoena for Telizhenko, he announced his intention to change the target of the subpoena to Blue Star Strategies, where Telizhenko worked.
Peters has already voiced his opposition to the new subpoena target, issuing a statement on March 12 calling the effort “an inappropriate use of committee resources, especially as we confront a global pandemic that threatens the lives and economic security of Americans.”
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Peters’ opposition to the subpoena triggered another full committee vote on whether to issue the subpoena. But with the Senate out of town for an unknown period, that vote ultimately could be delayed by two months or longer, postponing Johnson’s ability to get his hands on the documents from Blue Star and using them as part of his “interim” report.
When he announced the change of the subpoena target, Johnson said he wanted to give committee members more time for “additional briefings.” Those briefings cannot take place while senators are in their home states.
While the subpoena and the interim report are so far the only public-facing aspects of the investigation, staffers also recently obtained tranches of documents from the State Department and the National Archives. According to a source familiar with the matter, the National Archives provided documents from the Obama White House. Johnson has declined to divulge details about the records.
Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.