WASHINGTON — The office of former president Barack Obama privately blasted a congressional investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as alleged Ukrainian election interference, calling it an effort “to give credence to a Russian disinformation campaign,” according to a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
In March, Obama’s office told the National Archives and Records Administration — which maintains presidential records — that a request from two top Republican senators for Obama administration documents related to Ukraine was improper.
“It arises out of efforts by some, actively supported by Russia, to shift the blame for Russian interference in the 2016 election to Ukraine,” said the letter, dated March 13. It pointed to comments made by Fiona Hill, a former senior National Security Council official in the Trump White House, during the impeachment investigation into the president, calling Ukrainian election meddling “a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services.”
The November request for records came from Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, who have been investigating matters related to Democrats and Ukraine since the fall, when Trump was impeached for his interactions with Ukraine. Grassley and Johnson, who chair the Finance and Homeland Security committees, respectively, asked the National Archives for records on meetings between the Obama administration and Ukrainian officials, as well meetings between Obama officials and Alexandra Chalupa, the Democratic operative at the heart of the debunked Ukrainian election interference narrative.
The letter from Obama adds to Democratic criticism of the Senate probe as being a politically motivated effort to damage Biden’s presidential campaign against President Donald Trump and represents the first time Obama or his office has commented on the controversial investigation into his former vice president.
However, Obama ultimately agreed that the records could be released “in the interest of countering the misinformation campaign underlying this request,” according to the letter, which was provided to BuzzFeed News by his office in response to questions about the records request. Since mid-March, the National Archives has turned over around 9,400 pages of records to the Senate committees, according to an agency spokesperson.
Under federal law, both the former president whose records are sought and the current president are allowed to review and claim executive privilege over records requests. "Since 2017, the Office of President Obama has produced 12,880 pages of presidential records in response to special access requests from the White House and Congress," the letter said. In this case, representatives for Obama and Trump reviewed the records, the National Archives said, and neither had asserted privilege.
"The accusation that our oversight gives ‘credence to a Russian disinformation campaign’ is unfounded," Johnson spokesperson Austin Altenburg said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the "real Russian disinformation" was contained in a dossier on Trump and Russia compiled in 2016 by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. "Baseless accusations aside, our legitimate oversight will continue until we get answers for the American people.”
It’s unclear what’s in the Obama administration records that the senators now possess, but Grassley and Johnson have said they want to know whether reports about Ukrainian officials working to undermine the Trump campaign are accurate and whether US policy toward Ukraine was affected in any way by Biden’s son, Hunter, serving on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian energy company. The senators have insisted that the probe is not an effort to help the president get re-elected.
"Our investigation is extensive and our request for President Obama’s records is only one of many lines of inquiry," Altenburg added.
A spokesperson for Grassley did not respond to a request for comment.
US intelligence officials reportedly told Congress in the fall that Russia has sought to pin its election interference during the 2016 election on Ukraine. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian interference for more than three years, inquired about the Ukrainian interference theory and came up short, Politico reported.
“The request for early release of presidential records in order to give credence to a Russian disinformation campaign — one that has already been thoroughly investigated by a bipartisan congressional committee — is without precedent,” said the letter, signed by Obama’s records representative. “This use of the special access process serves no legitimate purpose, and does not outweigh or justify infringing confidentiality interests that all presidents have sought to protect.”
Despite allowing the records to be released, Obama’s office leveled a warning about Grassley and Johnson’s request, saying that “abuse” of the process by which Congress can access presidential records “strikes at the heart of presidential confidentiality interests and undermines the statutory framework and norms that govern access to presidential records.”
Though Grassley has previously raised questions about Chalupa, a former Democratic National Committee contractor, his investigation with Johnson ramped up in the fall and has continued since then. BuzzFeed News previously reported that the senators were expecting approximately 10,000 pages of records from the National Archives and thousands more from the State Department.
The investigation has been slowed by the coronavirus outbreak but not halted. Last week, Grassley and Johnson penned a letter to the State Department asking for additional documents following an initial request for records in November.
This story has been updated with comment from Sen. Johnson's office.