For a year, Senate Republicans have teased a bombshell investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden that could rock the former vice president’s campaign for the White House.
But an interim report, issued by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) less than six weeks before the presidential election and released publicly on Wednesday, is largely a compilation of previously public information — some of it rehashed anew by witnesses who already testified during the House’s impeachment inquiry last year — as well as news articles and strongly worded insinuations with little evidence to back them up.
The report , titled “Hunter Biden, Burisma and Corruption,” reprises these year-old claims and adds little new to a discussion first raised by President Donald Trump’s defense team in his impeachment trial before the Senate earlier this year, when the president was acquitted by GOP senators on charges of abusing his power by seeking to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. The report does little to substantiate allegations against the Democratic presidential nominee, which have been fueled in part by foreign actors linked to the Kremlin whom U.S. officials have said are attempting to interfere in the 2020 election.
The report relies on vague assessments already revealed publicly — namely, from top State Department official George Kent, who said Hunter Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company was “very awkward” for U.S. officials who were carrying out an anti-corruption policy in Ukraine. Kent made a similar remark during his impeachment testimony last fall.
The report also highlights a year-old New Yorker article describing a conversation between Biden and a top aide about his son’s role on the board of the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, but notes that the article provided no evidence about how Biden reacted. The aide, Amos Hochstein, a former special envoy for international energy in Barack Obama’s administration, declined to discuss his conversation with Biden about the subject when he testified last week before Johnson’s panel.
The GOP senators have been investigating allegations that a Democratic public-relations firm, Blue Star Strategies, sought to influence the Obama-era State Department by leveraging Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Trump has pushed Republicans to use their investigative powers to probe his political rivals.
The investigation — which lacked majority support among members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that Johnson chairs — found that two officials, including Kent, raised conflict-of-interest concerns to Biden when he served as vice president. The report states that Hunter Biden’s role “cast a shadow” over U.S.-Ukraine policy, but provides no evidence that U.S. foreign policy was impacted.
Democrats raised concerns that Johnson would not honor a recent committee vote to release all of the witness interview transcripts alongside the report, except for in cases where classified information might be revealed. Johnson’s staff did not immediately release full transcripts on Wednesday, only quoting from witness testimony in the report, often without full context.
Democrats, led by Sens. Gary Peters of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon, accused Johnson of publicly hyping a damaging report on Joe Biden only to issue a report that included no such evidence.
"Chairman Johnson repeatedly impugned Vice President Biden in public on the basis of secret evidence he claimed to have obtained," the Democrats said. "Contrary to his public insinuations, the Chairmen’s investigation found no evidence that the former Vice President did anything wrong in his efforts to carry out official U.S foreign policy in Ukraine."
The Johnson-Grassley report devotes 10 of its 87 pages to criticizing Democratic attacks and media reports about the investigation, including several from POLITICO. And it ends stating that “there remains much work to be done,” citing lack of compliance from the executive branch.
Allegations that the Democratic firm Blue Star Strategies attempted to sway the State Department during the Obama administration follow the argument Trump’s lawyers made during Trump’s January defense against impeachment charges that he abused his power by pressuring Ukrainian leaders to investigate Biden and his son. Johnson ramped up his Biden-focused probe during the House’s impeachment inquiry and though it briefly faded from view as Biden’s presidential candidacy seemed to sputter, he intensified it again in February after Biden surged back into contention.
Trump’s allies allege that Biden — who led anti-corruption efforts for the Obama administration in Ukraine — forced the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma while Hunter Biden sat on the board. But high-level State Department witnesses repeatedly discredited this claim, emphasizing that Biden’s removal of the prosecutor, who was widely seen as corrupt, was official U.S. policy and actually made it likelier that Burisma would face a serious corruption investigation.
Nevertheless, Johnson pursued the allegations, even amid increasingly loud warnings — from some Republicans, too — that some of the actors perpetuating the same narrative were doing so at the behest of Russia, which intelligence officials say is interfering in the 2020 election to denigrate Biden.
As a result, Johnson’s investigation has been mired in growing controversy. Democrats have accused Johnson of aiding Vladimir Putin’s attack on American elections, a charge whose potency grew after the Treasury Department sanctioned pro-Russia Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach, calling him a Russian agent who is fueling false narratives about Biden. Senators have openly clashed in classified settings over Johnson’s probe.
In the report, Johnson and Grassley reject the notion that Derkach’s material, or any evidence he has purported to gather, made its way into their report.
“Since the offices of Chairman Johnson and Chairman Grassley did not receive, and were unaware of, the information that Derkach had allegedly sent, it is impossible that Derkach’s efforts could have shaped the committees’ investigation in any way,” they wrote.
Johnson’s allegations against the Bidens mirror those pushed by Derkach, who sent packets of information about Biden to Johnson and other Trump allies on Capitol Hill. But Johnson’s office has denied that the senator received anything from Derkach or is relying on his claims. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has met with Derkach and sought to spur an investigation into the Bidens, led by the Ukrainian government — an effort that ultimately got Trump impeached by the House.
Derkach has been releasing leaked tapes of phone calls between Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, none of which support the narrative Derkach has pushed but which have fueled fear of a high-level plot. Trump has amplified reports about those tapes despite warnings about Derkach from the intelligence community.
In a statement, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Johnson has “wasted months” investigating the Bidens while the coronavirus pandemic rages. He said Johnson sought to “subsidize a foreign attack against the sovereignty of our elections with taxpayer dollars — an attack founded on a long-disproven, hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory.”
The report leans heavily on 100 citations from 14 "confidential documents" in lengthy passages detailing Hunter Biden's financial connections to foreign nationals. Democrats indicated in their rebuttal that the documents are actually "suspicious activity reports" kept by the Treasury Department, in which financial institutions flag transactions but don't verify whether any wrongdoing has occurred. Peters said the GOP senators' decision to rely on suspicious activity reports, and publicize their details without any independent investigation, was an unprecedented use of congressional power.
"The Republican Chairmen’s use of confidential Treasury documents to justify its unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks against Vice President Biden’s family is grossly irresponsible," the Democrats said. "The information in the documents cited by the Republicans has not been verified, and we are not aware of any other Congressional committee ever releasing this sort of information in this manner."
It's unclear if the documents refer to bank statements or government filings or other materials that would help provide a roadmap for how the committee investigated the son of the former vice president.
Despite the release of what Johnson dubs an “interim” report on Wednesday, he has faced several roadblocks in recent months.
Earlier this year, Johnson tried to issue a subpoena to Andriy Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat who has pushed unsubstantiated claims about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. But he ultimately scrapped the subpoena after the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force briefed committee aides about Telizhenko, prompting unease among Republicans.
For months, Johnson pushed back on the idea that his probe was intended to help Trump politically. But more recently, he has confirmed those suspicions.
“People need to take a look at this report very carefully and understand what the ramifications are for electing Joe Biden as president,” Johnson said on a local radio program Tuesday, the day before he released the report.
Indeed, some of Johnson’s fellow Republicans have criticized the investigation as a political exercise, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who sits on the Homeland Security panel. Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump during the Senate impeachment trial.
“It is not the legitimate role of government, for Congress or for taxpayer expense, to be used in an effort to damage political opponents,” Romney said last week .
Other Republicans have distanced themselves from Johnson’s actions, refusing to defend the investigation but declining to openly criticize it. POLITICO previously reported that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, confronted Johnson privately about the probe, telling the Wisconsin Republican that it could aid Russia’s election-meddling efforts.
Still, Johnson has pressed on, as Trump’s allies pressured him to keep the heat on the Bidens. Johnson has also launched a separate investigation centering on the Obama administration’s actions during the presidential transition period, stemming from the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation in 2016 that targeted the Trump campaign.