This Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s chambers were filled with something that the Senate is likely to hear a lot of through November: the sweet sound of yelling about Joe Biden.
Senators had convened to vote on a subpoena pushed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), the panel’s chairman, for documents related to a probe into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his business dealings in Ukraine—the subject that fueled the impeachment of President Trump.
With impeachment finished but Biden the Democratic presidential nominee, Johnson has vowed to forge ahead with the investigation. “The question I would ask is, what is everybody worried about?” Johnson said as his committee convened. “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 Democrats on the committee responded harshly—even the mild-mannered former committee chairman, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), shouted into his microphone at one point, demanding Johnson allow him to speak before he plowed ahead with the vote. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) called the convening “a charade that would be silly if it were not so insidious,” and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) accused the GOP majority of doing “the president’s political bidding.”
Ultimately, that subpoena was approved on a party-line vote. And a similar scene is likely to play out soon on the Senate GOP’s other investigatory front: probing the origins of the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), has teed up an expansive subpoena for documents and testimony from dozens of former officials in the Obama administration—including former Biden aides—to launch the probe into what Trump calls “Obamagate.” Graham confirmed on Tuesday that he’d plan to wrap this effort before the 2020 election.
This leaves Democrats with a dilemma: meet every hearing and news cycle of GOP claims about Biden’s misconduct with an aggressive counter, and Democrats risk amplifying them at a time when they believe Trump’s handling of COVID-19 should be their sole focus. But ignoring them has some Democrats worried that it’d give the GOP a chance to freely advance their claims—and possibly amplify narratives championed by those seeking to undermine U.S. elections.
Senate Democratic aides who spoke to The Daily Beast acknowledged that whatever way they decide to respond will carry its own risks. According to three aides, the party has a difficult needle to thread over the next few months, and many want to see exactly what Republicans do before they figure out how to proceed.
All agreed, however, that the balance they strike has to offer up a robust counter to the claims they’re making against Biden while ensuring they don’t seep into the 2020 election in the way that claims about Hillary Clinton’s email use, or the Benghazi attacks, did in 2016.
There’s an air of nervousness about the GOP probes, a Senate Democratic aide told The Daily Beast, but there is a broad sense that they don’t pose the kind of threat that, for example, the Benghazi quest did for Clinton. “Everyone recognizes there's not much we can do to control the Fox News ecosystem,” said the aide, explaining that the goal “is to try to keep this in that ecosystem and not let it spread, as much as possible.”
Hill Democrats do have a burden to “call bullshit,” said Josh Schwerin, a top strategist at the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA who was a spokesperson for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “I agree they should not give it more air than it needs to have... but congressional Democrats have the resources to dig in on this stuff and debunk a lot of it in real time. They can head it off from becoming a bigger issue. It doesn’t mean a rapid-response, war room effort, it means being on top of it.”
They are likely to follow the lead of the Biden campaign, which has relentlessly focused on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus while engaging on a limited basis with the GOP’s probes into their candidate. Asked about Graham’s investigation, and his promise to have it wrapped before election day, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said that Graham “sold his conscience in exchange for a better shot at winning his primary.”
“He can debase his committee by handing the keys over to the Daily Caller all he wants,” Bates said. “In the meantime, our campaign will continue to excoriate Donald Trump for his catastrophic failures on coronavirus, which have cost over 90,000 Americans their lives and sent the booming economy the Obama-Biden Administration left behind careening toward a depression."
Democrats say it’s an advantage that the inquiries being pursued by the GOP against Biden are far more complex and hard to follow for the average voter than those that dogged Clinton in 2016, which had easy taglines and focal points. It’s also the case that both fronts have already been litigated extensively over the course of the last year.
For example, the focus of Graham’s nascent investigation—the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign—has already gotten an extensive probe by the Department of Justice inspector general, which ultimately found serious mistakes in the FBI’s treatment of the Trump campaign, but no evidence of systemic political bias. The topic is also currently under investigation by a special federal prosecutor, John Durham, who is expected to release a report on the matter soon.
But Graham is vowing to conduct another exhaustive investigation, with multiple Judiciary hearings spanning the month of June and possibly well into the summer. Some of the targets of Graham’s subpoena include current and former top advisers to Biden, like Steve Richetti, who was Biden’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2017, who may have been aware of the FBI’s activities in 2016.
“We’re going to investigate the investigators, and try to find out how Crossfire Hurricane got off the rails,” Graham said on Wednesday, referring to the FBI code name for the Trump campaign counter-intelligence operation.
The matter of Hunter Biden and Ukraine, meanwhile, is familiar turf for anyone who followed the impeachment of President Trump, whose defenders argued that his pressure campaign on Ukraine to probe the Bidens was justified because the family might have acted with impropriety in their business dealings there. Republicans pointed to the then-vice president advocating for the ouster of a prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had previously investigated Burisma while Hunter Biden was on the board of the company, as legitimate reason for that suspicion.
But it was official U.S. policy and international consensus that Biden was reflecting in opposing Shokin, and claims that either Biden broke the law or otherwise committed any misdeeds have been largely debunked. But Ukrainian politicians aligned with Russia have sought to push the narrative that Biden acted corruptly as vice president with respect to Burisma: one of them, Andriy Derkach, released leaked calls between Biden and former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko this week.
Republicans, like Johnson, have responded that they have no choice but to look into these matters. “I didn't want this to be a big deal,” Johnson said on Fox News after the committee approved the subpoena on Wednesday. “I just want to get the information. I just wanted to get those records.” He also vowed to work with Graham or “anybody that has information about what all happened here,” meaning 2016.
“It's just tragic it's taken more than three years, that Special Counsel Mueller turned a blind eye to the abuse within the FBI, that [FBI Director] Christopher Wray hasn't really cleaned up that organization—the American people have a right to know.”
For now, Democrats are settling on a mix of pushing back hard on these claims when they arise in committee rooms, and hitting them in speeches from party leaders, while at the same time not making any of the investigations a priority in the kind of quick-fire communications often used by social media accounts on the Hill.
The day after the testy hearing in Johnson’s committee, most Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not show up for a meeting on Thursday to advance Graham’s investigation, and the minority delayed the hearing on the subpoena to the following week.
In a letter submitted after the brief hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Graham was seeking “unbridled authority to go after Obama-era officials in order to bolster the president’s conspiracy theories and denigrate the president’s political rival, Joe Biden… Now, it appears that Republicans want to use the subpoena power of this committee to attack Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.”
Beyond that, the Democrats on the Judiciary and Homeland Committees have not gone out of their ways to mention the GOP investigations. The Twitter accounts of the minority on either committee have not mentioned these investigations, nor have their ranking members, Feinstein and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).
Ultimately, Hill Democrats appear determined to treat each time they respond to the GOP investigations as a chance to argue that Republicans are prioritizing them over responding to the pandemic.
That was the focal point of remarks on Wednesday from the Democratic Senate leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said from the Senate floor that Republicans are “turning Senate committee rooms into the studio of Fox & Friends” instead of drafting bills to help the unemployed or increase COVID-19 testing.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a Judiciary Committee member and close Biden ally, appeared on Fox News on Wednesday, where he was pressed about Graham’s investigation.
“Frankly, for the entire Judiciary Committee to now authorize dozens of subpoenas and try to haul back folks from the previous administration when we are in the midst of a pandemic,” said Coons, “I would prefer that we be spending our time on looking at issues that would help America respond to and recover from this pandemic."