The Treasury Department has complied with Republican senators’ requests for highly sensitive and closely held financial records about Hunter Biden and his associates and has turned over “‘evidence’ of questionable origin” to them, according to a leading Democrat on one of the committees conducting the investigation.
For months, while the impeachment controversy raged, powerful committee chairmen in the Republican-controlled Senate have been quietly but openly pursuing an inquiry into Hunter Biden’s business affairs and Ukrainian officials’ alleged interventions in the 2016 election, the same matters that President Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani unsuccessfully tried to coerce Ukraine’s government to investigate.
Unlike Trump and Giuliani, however, Sens. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee; Ron Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, have focused their efforts in Washington, seeking to extract politically useful information from agencies of the U.S. government. They’ve issued letters requesting records from Cabinet departments and agencies, including the State Department, the Treasury, the Justice Department, the FBI, the National Archives and the Secret Service.
Grassley and Johnson have sought to obtain some of the most sensitive and closely held documents in all of federal law enforcement — highly confidential suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed by financial institutions with FinCEN, an agency of the Treasury that helps to police money laundering.
The senators’ requests to the Treasury have borne fruit, according to the ranking Democratic senator on the Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who contrasted the cooperation given to the Republican senators with the pervasive White House-directed stonewall that House Democrats encountered when they subpoenaed documents and witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
“Applying a blatant double standard, Trump administration agencies like the Treasury Department are rapidly complying with Senate Republican requests — no subpoenas necessary — and producing ‘evidence’ of questionable origin,” Wyden spokesperson Ashley Schapitl said in a statement. “The administration told House Democrats to go pound sand when their oversight authority was mandatory while voluntarily cooperating with the Senate Republicans’ sideshow at lightning speed.”
The “rapid” production of sensitive financial information from the Treasury Department in response to congressional requests is apparently uncommon. A source familiar with the matter said the Treasury began turning over materials less than two months after Grassley and Johnson wrote to FinCEN on Nov. 15, 2019, requesting any SARs and related documents filed by financial institutions regarding Hunter Biden, his associates, their businesses and clients.
Just a couple of weeks later, Wyden and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, complained to FinCEN in a letter that “information requests from Congress, including legitimate Committee oversight requests related to Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), often take months to process, and we understand that certain such requests have yet to be answered at all.”
“Sen. Wyden’s warning was spurred by concern that the agency would prioritize Republican requests over Democratic requests,” Schapitl said of the December letter to FinCEN. “Treasury’s subsequent actions have made his concerns even more urgent.”
“It's strange that any senator would complain about receiving responses to oversight requests in a timely manner,” a Grassley spokesperson said to BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
"The Democrats launched a nuclear weapon with impeachment, and then wanted to negotiate while it was in the air — that’s not how oversight works," a Republican Senate aide said, responding to Wyden's comments about a double standard between the GOP investigation and the impeachment inquiry.
Republicans also noted that Sen. Grassley had first raised his concerns about a DNC contractor potentially coordinating with Ukraine in a 2017 letter to the Justice Department.
"Senate Republicans’ investigation ramped up just as the House impeachment investigation ramped up," Schapitl said, "providing an avenue for them to pursue the trumped-up investigation President Zelensky did not announce in the face of President Trump’s extortion scheme."
With the Senate impeachment trial concluded and the Democratic primaries in full swing, the efforts of the Republican-led investigation may soon appear at the center of the political stage. The flow of information from the administration to Senate Republicans has prompted concerns among Democrats that any damaging information uncovered may be deployed at a time of maximum political advantage for the Trump campaign.
“Republicans are turning the Senate into an arm of the president’s political campaign, pursuing an investigation designed to further President Trump’s favorite conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election and smear Vice President Biden,” Schapitl said. The Biden presidential campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A series of letters and public statements shows that since last autumn the senators have been pursuing a wide-ranging joint inquiry into Hunter Biden’s business affairs in Ukraine at the time his father, Vice President Joe Biden, was leading the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy and into the activities of Ukrainian officials and a Ukrainian-American Democratic political operative during the 2016 election.
Aside from the statement from Wyden’s office, there has been scant information about what investigators have uncovered, if anything. Wyden’s statement stopped short of saying whether the “‘evidence’ of questionable origin” produced in compliance with the senators’ request included SARs.
The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 mandates that banks generate SARs to report to FinCEN any transactions that they know or have reason to suspect violate federal criminal laws or are connected to money laundering. SARs are among the most confidential, closely held documents in federal law enforcement. They are forbidden to be disclosed or have their existence disclosed by banks or government authorities, are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act and are privileged in most cases from discovery by civil litigants.
Because SARs may be, and indeed are required to be, filed simply on the basis of a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, the existence of a SAR doesn’t indicate that illegal activity has actually occurred.
The Republican Senate staff conducting the investigation did not respond to inquiries, and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee declined to comment. Treasury, State and Justice did not respond to inquiries. The FBI declined to comment.
The National Archives and Records Administration said that it had not turned over any records to the Senate yet, but that a review of the request by the White House and the office of President Barack Obama, which has purview over some of the records, is ongoing. “NARA has been in regular contact with committee staff,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The Secret Service, which only received its request from the Republican investigators after the acquittal vote of the president on Wednesday, could not be immediately reached for comment.
From their letters, it’s clear that the senators’ inquiry into the Bidens deals with the same subject matter that Trump and Giuliani’s pressure campaign sought to place under scrutiny. Their interest in suspected Ukrainian influences on the 2016 election, however, has a different point of emphasis.
Instead of the debunked CrowdStrike conspiracy theory that Trump alluded to on his call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky or similar unsubstantiated theories positing that Ukraine was somehow behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the senators have focused on a controversial January 2017 Politico article that alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election to help Hillary Clinton defeat Trump.
The article relied heavily on the allegations of Andrii Telizhenko, then a diplomat in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, who said he was asked by Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic Party consultant, to get dirt on Paul Manafort, who was then the campaign manager for Trump. Telizhenko has since cast himself as a central figure in Giuliani’s Ukraine investigations.
The Politico article has been seized on by Trump’s defenders as evidence that there was Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential election similar to the Kremlin-directed influence campaign.
“Whether there’s a connection between Democratic operatives and Ukrainian officials during the 2016 election has yet to be determined,” Graham said in a December statement. “It will only be found by looking. We intend to look.”
National security officials who served in the Trump administration have rejected the notion that Ukrainian efforts against Trump were coordinated or could be reasonably be likened to Russia’s systematic election interference campaign, which intelligence agencies have assessed was led by President Vladimir Putin himself.
“It is a fiction that the Ukrainian government was launching an effort to upend our election, upend our election to mess with our Democratic systems,” Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official in Trump’s White House, testified at her House deposition in October.
Yet throughout the fall and early winter, Republican senators peppered executive branch officials with request letters on both the Bidens and the Ukraine interference theory that Hill had implored Congress to avoid.
Grassley and Johnson courted controversy with a letter to the Justice Department seeking to obtain a broad swath of information that Chalupa, the Democratic Party consultant, says she voluntarily provided to the FBI in 2016 when she felt harassed by Russian hacking.
In a January response letter to the Justice Department, Wyden called the request “outrageous.”
“To use [Chalupa’s] voluntary cooperation in order to weaponize her personal information against her in furtherance of a political attack based on unsupported claims and potential Russian propaganda would compromise public trust in our law enforcement, undermine Americans’ rights, and damage our national security interests,” he wrote.
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