Election Day is still more than five months away, but Senate Republicans are planting the seeds to produce their own version of an October surprise by trying to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and stir up controversy over decisions made during the Obama administration.
The GOP-led Senate has lined up a series of springtime votes to press forward for documents from a who’s who of Democratic boogeymen. While it’s unclear if they will succeed in obtaining any damaging material, their goal is to uncover anything that lends itself to the kinds of drip-drip revelations that can create negative perceptions of Biden before November.
Republicans say they’re getting to the bottom of controversial political decisions by bringing truth to the American people over allegations of government abuse of power. Democrats counter that the move is a distraction tactic from how President Donald Trump is handling the coronavirus pandemic and an attempt to smear Biden as the election edges closer.
Either way, the stage is set for another climatic campaign that will resurrect memories of then-FBI Director James Comey publicly discussing on the eve of the 2016 election the bureau’s investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State.
“Even something that should not be an October surprise can be spun into something that it isn’t,” Gregory Brower, the former head of the FBI’s congressional-affairs office, told Insider. “It’s rehashing to create a spectacle, but there’s no compelling policy reason to review any of this stuff.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill, sensing an opportunity, are nonetheless setting the stage for an active summer and fall designed to undercut Biden while boosting Trump’s chances of winning a second term.
On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on a party-line vote issued a subpoena to Blue Star Strategies, a Democratic public-relations firm that worked on behalf of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, sat on the company’s board.
Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security panel, told reporters he was hoping to issue a report on his committee’s findings over the summer. For now, Blue Star Strategies said it had not yet received the subpoena and was not aware of a deadline for compliance.
More investigations are also coming. Soon after next week’s Memorial Day recess, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to vote to subpoena a broad list of Obama-era officials as part of the panel’s investigation into the underlying reasons for the FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Targets for subpoenas include Comey, former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who is also facing a 2020 reelection challenge in South Carolina, said Thursday at a brief meeting of his committee that he’d been asked to hold off on a vote to authorize the subpoenas until after the holiday and he was honoring the request.
Swift boats, Benghazi, and the secret Clinton email server
In 2004, the GOP-aligned shadow group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used TV ads and a book to raise unsubstantiated questions about then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s record as a decorated officer during the Vietnam War. In 2016, the FBI under the Obama administration scrutinized Clinton’s use of the private email server, giving Trump and Republicans ample fodder to stir up controversy and ultimately defeat her.
During the Trump era, Democrats and other former government officials have accused Attorney General Bill Barr of doing the president’s bidding on several controversial issues, including his handling of the final report from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
While Trump continues to call for the prosecution of top Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, Barr on Monday said the Justice Department would resist political pressure to investigate opponents of the president and that the “criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends.”
The attorney general added that he didn’t expect US Attorney John Durham’s ongoing review of the FBI Russia probe to lead to criminal investigations of Biden or Obama, saying the department was focused as part of the review on the potential criminality of others.
That opens the door for the Senate GOP conference, which earlier this week met with Trump during a luncheon where the president urged them to “be tough” and signaled his enthusiasm for campaigning against Biden and revisiting the topics of Democratic investigations into his associates and Russian interference in 2016.
Zac Petkanas, a former senior adviser to Clinton’s presidential campaign, told Insider that Johnson and Graham’s maneuvering is “right out of the 2016 playbook.”
He referenced efforts by the GOP-led House beginning in 2014, when it launched a two-year probe into the terrorist attack on a US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens. During the course of the House investigation, the panel discovered Clinton as secretary of State had been using a personal email account for public business.
“It doesn’t matter that they get the documents,” Petkanas said of the Senate GOP. “It’s that they request them, creating the perception that there is some sort of nefarious activity going on. That was what they did in 2016, by saying Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, or talking about the Clinton emails.”
“That was what they did in 2016, by saying Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi or talking about the Clinton emails.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer slammed the Homeland Security panel’s subpoena vote from the Senate floor Wednesday, saying that the panel should have been holding a hearing with agencies overseeing response to the coronavirus pandemic but instead were “prioritizing yet another attempt to smear Vice President Biden.”
The New York Democrat said the allegations about Burisma were Russian-fueled disinformation campaigns and discredited “conspiracy theories.”
“Our Republican majority is using Russian propaganda to try and damage a political opponent. Is that a disgrace?” Schumer said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized Graham’s plans to subpoena a wide net of federal law enforcement and national security officials. She called the moves a pattern Democrats had seen before in 2016 when Republicans sought to investigate Clinton.
“The committee should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate, period,” she said in a statement submitted to the record during the Judiciary meeting Thursday. “This would be true at any time — but even more so now, in the middle of a public-health and economic crisis.”
Republicans say they need documents from Blue Star to understand whether Hunter Biden abused his position on the board to influence policy decisions at the Obama-led State Department.
In a letter Wednesday to Johnson, Blue Star CEO Karen Tramontano questioned the need for a subpoena, saying the firm is willing to comply with the committee’s requests and have done so thus far.
Democrats also decried the subpoena as an illegitimate and partisan move to play defense for Trump. Delaware Sen. Tom Carper grew visibly heated during the hearing, demanding time to speak before the vote and urging Johnson to focus on the coronavirus and other legislation that the committee could accomplish on a bipartisan basis.
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who is considered to be on the short list for the vice-presidential slot on the Biden ticket, urged Johnson to end the “political sideshow.”
But Johnson defended the subpoena. On Fox News, shortly after the committee took a party-line 8-6 vote, he said the “vast majority” of the committee’s work was focused on the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’re just trying to get to the truth,” he said.
The committee chairman also said Democrats appeared to have something to hide because of their pushback.
“When it comes to the Blue Star records, all of a sudden they object and throw a little bit of a hissy fit,” Johnson said. “My interest level has been raised by their level of objections. I think they protest a little too much.”
Biden’s campaign also criticized the Homeland Security panel vote, saying that Johnson should be focused on saving American lives but is “trying to save the president’s job.”
“We’re in the middle of the worst public health and economic crisis in a century, and what is Senator Johnson focused on? Running a political errand for Donald Trump by wasting Homeland Security Committee time and resources attempting to resurrect a craven, previously-debunked smear against Vice President Biden,” Andrew Bates, the director of rapid response for the Biden campaign, said.
But Jason Miller, a former Trump 2016 campaign senior communications adviser, said what Senate Republicans are doing now is no different than the nearly two-year-long Mueller probe that shadowed the Trump administration or the recent impeachment proceedings that centered on the president’s attempts to pressure Ukraine into launching a probe of the Biden family.
Democrats “just don’t like it when the shoe is on the other foot,” Miller said. He also pushed back against the idea that Senate Republicans were issuing subpoenas to knock Biden off stride this fall.
“At this point, the biggest October surprise would be Joe Biden actually visiting Wisconsin, or Joe Biden actually getting out of his basement podcasting routine,” Miller said.
Ashley Gold is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter focusing on technology, healthcare, and policy whose work has appeared in The Information, Politico, and BBC News. Find her on Twitter @ashleyrgold.