WASHINGTON — Republicans in the Senate are months into a broad investigation into matters related to Democrats and Ukraine and have made steady progress amassing documents and coordinating interviews with possible witnesses, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
The investigation, which has been ongoing as President Donald Trump’s impeachment worked its way through Congress, focuses on former vice president Joe Biden’s relationship with Ukraine and widely refuted claims that the country interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Since December, the lead Republicans on three Senate committees have been receiving records and talking to those who might testify in the vast probe, which could stretch into the summer and the primaries, where Biden is vying for the Democratic nomination. The committees are expecting thousands more pages of records from government agencies about interactions between the Obama administration and Ukrainian officials before the last presidential election.
Those three Republican committee chairs — Sens. Chuck Grassley, Ron Johnson, and Lindsey Graham — sent out requests in the fall to a wide range of government entities, as well as political consultants and former State Department officials who have been tied to right-wing conspiracy theories about Ukrainian election meddling. (Graham has been less involved than Grassley and Johnson.)
The requests, which didn’t make large waves at the time, came as Democrats pursued impeachment against the president for withholding millions in foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into the Bidens — notably, Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. The requests focused on a series of reported events that many Republicans have argued justified Trump’s demand for the investigations and that merit scrutiny both in Ukraine and the US.
Now, Democrats are accusing the Republican senators of using their congressional resources to reelect Trump based on largely debunked theories. “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,” said Ashley Schapitl, a spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee.
Grassley’s office argued, however, that he’s pursued several investigations in recent years, including one on Russian election interference that included interviewing Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. “Over his 40-year tenure in the Senate, Grassley has developed a long history of nonpartisan oversight, regardless of what party controls Congress or the White House. To imply that his investigations are politically-motivated or one-sided is demonstrably wrong,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Schapitl also said the Treasury Department has turned over materials as part of the Republican investigation and questioned how quickly the department did so.
“[T]he Trump administration refused to comply with all Democratic requests for documents and witnesses associated with impeachment,” Schapitl said. “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. 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 comments from Wyden’s office about Treasury turning over information to the committees were first reported by Yahoo News.
In November, Grassley and Johnson, who lead the Finance and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, wrote to a powerful law enforcement agency within the Treasury Department seeking information on any suspicious financial activity by Hunter Biden, Burisma, and others.
Schapitl declined to say what the agency, known as the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or FinCEN, turned over to the lawmakers. Treasury did not return a request for comment.
The documents sought by the senators, known as suspicious activity reports, or SARs, are filed regularly to FinCEN by banks when they spot transactions that bear the hallmarks of financial crimes. Though the reports themselves are not evidence of a crime, they can be used to support investigations and intelligence gathering. It’s unclear if the materials provided to the committees are SARs and if so, to whom they pertain.
“It's strange that any senator would complain about receiving responses to oversight requests in a timely manner,” the Grassley spokesperson said Thursday. “As a general matter, most oversight requests do not involve material protected by Executive Privilege, so it can be more rapidly provided to Congress. If the administration were to claim privilege over requested material, as the Obama administration did in during the ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ investigation, members of Congress can use other tools at their disposal – including the courts – to compel cooperation. In the case of impeachment, the House chose not to do so.”
On Friday, Grassley and Johnson went further, saying that they had shared information about the investigation with Democrats on the committee "as a courtesy" and accusing them of trying to undermine Republicans' "legitimate oversight by selectively leaking information to the press."
“Insofar as we requested as part of our investigation any sensitive law enforcement information regarding suspicious financial transactions, that request and any response received would be highly sensitive," the senators said in a joint statement. "Any selective leaks to publicize or confirm these actions is highly inappropriate, undermines our investigation, and risks the effectiveness of this important law enforcement tool. Should such sensitive information exist, it would only prove the need to further investigate any and all suspicious activity related to it. Accordingly, despite these inappropriate and selective leaks, we will continue undeterred."
Wyden's office responded Friday night, saying that the Republican chairmen "are required to share investigative material with the minority under Senate rules. It is not a 'courtesy.' Further, Senator Wyden and his staff have not disclosed any investigative material, as every outlet has noted. It’s ridiculous to characterize an official office statement on the double standard of Trump administration cooperation with Congress as a 'leak.'"
Grassley, Johnson, and Graham have continued to question whether Joe Biden misused his position as vice president to protect his son — a theory that has not been backed up by any evidence. In late 2015 and early 2016, Biden was charged with leading the Obama administration's Ukraine policy and was one of several prominent Western voices to call on the country to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had previously investigated Burisma. Republicans have alleged that Biden did so to help Hunter. However, the West’s widespread displeasure with Shokin was rooted in his inability to root out corruption and investigate companies like Burisma, and Biden — unlike Trump — was operating within established US foreign policy. Republican senators, including Johnson, even signed a letter urging Shokin’s dismissal at the time.
Despite that, Republicans want to know more about emails that purport to show a Democratic lobbying firm called Blue Star Strategies using Hunter Biden’s name to score a meeting with a senior State Department official to discuss the administration’s labeling of Burisma as corrupt.
They’ve asked Blue Star, which was working on behalf of Burisma, for documents, but it’s unclear if the firm has turned over any records. The firm did not respond to requests for comment, and Grassley’s spokesperson declined to discuss specifics about what the committees have received.
Additionally, the three senators asked five Obama-era State Department officials for interviews as part of their probe into “potential conflicts of interest and political influence by Ukrainian elements.” The senators also asked the officials for documents pertaining to Hunter Biden, Burisma, Blue Star, and more, according to a source familiar with the requests. That source, speaking on background to discuss the investigation, said committee lawyers have held several calls with attorneys for the officials since late December.
The Grassley spokesperson confirmed that the committees have had “productive conversations” with many of the people — including former Obama officials and Blue Star employees — who received request letters in the fall. “We’ve heard from the non-government witnesses,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve heard from I believe all of them in one way or another. They’re all cooperating. We’ve received documents from some.”
The spokesperson said the committees are in the “fact-finding stage” of the probe. As part of that, Grassley and Johnson wrote to the State Department in early November requesting a host of documents. Graham, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, sent a separate request to the State Department later that month seeking records on the Bidens. The State Department is working on turning over the files and the production could be around 1,000 pages long, the Grassley spokesperson said.
The committees are also expecting approximately 10,000 pages of records from the National Archives, the spokesperson said, about meetings reported by a conservative writer between the Obama administration, Ukrainian officials, and a Democratic National Committee contractor named Alexandra Chalupa. However, it’s unclear when the committees might receive the documents from the National Archives, as the law governing records from previous administrations allows them to review the documents before they are released.
“NARA is in the process of responding to this special access request for Presidential records in accordance with the requirements of the Presidential Records Act, which provides the representatives of the current and former Presidents an opportunity to review any responsive records before they can be released to the Senate committee requesters,” a National Archives spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Jan. 24. “The review process is currently ongoing for this request, and no records have yet been produced. NARA has been in regular contact with committee staff.”
The request to the National Archives references another part of the Republican investigation — reported efforts by Ukrainian officials to undermine Trump’s campaign. Key to those allegations is Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat whose claims about what the country’s DC embassy did during the 2016 election have helped form the basis for many of the Republican senators’ requests. In 2017, Telizhenko told Politico that a senior official at the Ukrainian embassy instructed him to help Chalupa research links between Trump, then-campaign chair Paul Manafort, and the Russians. Manafort eventually resigned from the campaign as reports about his links to Russia surfaced and is now serving a seven-year prison sentence for a series of financial crimes from before he joined Trump’s team.
The Ukrainian embassy has disputed Telizhenko’s claims, but he insists that the embassy colluded with Democrats to hurt Trump’s campaign and has become a prominent voice on the right as a result, meeting with Rudy Giuliani, the attorney working for Trump who led a shadow campaign in Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Bidens.
In early December, Grassley, Johnson, and Graham asked Telizhenko for an interview and documents as part of their investigation. “I said I would fully cooperate with the investigation they’re working on and provided any evidence I had,” Telizhenko, now a political consultant, told BuzzFeed News last week. He said he sent the committees copies of documents from when he worked at the embassy, but couldn’t provide everything, as some are sensitive government records. “I basically provided them what they asked for,” he said.
Telizhenko says he also worked for Blue Star for a period and wants to provide documents from that time, but will need a subpoena to do so because of the nature of his contract with the firm.
Telizhenko said he responded to the committees’ request quickly and sent the documents “a bit later.” He’s also had at least one call with several staff members from the committees. “There were like eight people on the line,” he said. He last spoke to the committees “around a week ago,” he said, and believed the committees would begin interviewing witnesses after the impeachment trial was over as part of a “deep investigation.”
He says he wants his interview with the committees to be in an open hearing. “I’m ready to go,” he said. “From my side, I want to go as public as possible for the protection of myself, because I don’t want any party, Republican or Democrat, to use my statement in a political manner to basically politicize anything I say.” However, the Grassley spokesperson said congressional investigators “call the shots, not the witnesses.”
Johnson and Grassley have also asked Chalupa for documents and testimony. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, she said, “The conspiracy theories that the Russian Federation and Paul Manafort planted days after the 2016 election, and which the Trump Administration, Senator Grassley, Senator Johnson, and Senator Graham have weaponized against an American citizen who warned her country that Vladimir Putin was attacking America’s democracy are completely false. They can choose who to believe an American mom with truth on her side or the Kremlin, which continues to wage disinformation warfare against Americans and attacks our elections. Truth matters.”
The senators have requested records on Chalupa from the FBI and the Department of Justice as well, but neither has indicated they are working to turn anything over, the Grassley spokesperson said. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News and the FBI said only that it “confirms receipt of the letter and declines further comment.”
Grassley previously asked the Justice Department why Chalupa wasn’t registered as a foreign agent after the January 2017 Politico article was published — a request he renewed in September. However, according to a source knowledgeable about the issue, the department sent Chalupa a letter in November 2017 saying she did not need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
As for claims about Ukrainian election interference, intelligence officials reportedly told senators in a private briefing that Russia has sought to frame Ukraine for its own election meddling in 2016. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been working on a bipartisan investigation into Russian election interference for more than three years, reportedly investigated the claims about the Ukrainians as part of the probe and failed to find any leads worth pursuing.
Even the three Republican senators leading the Ukraine investigation have acknowledged that some of the theories about the country, including one propagated by Manafort and Trump about Ukraine — not Russia — hacking Democrats during the last presidential election, are baseless. “The senators’ inquiries are unrelated to an uncorroborated theory that Ukraine was also behind the hack of DNC servers,” the senators said in their press release about the requests to Chalupa and Telizhenko.
Still, the senators are forging ahead with their probe into the embassy’s alleged research on Manafort and possible conflicts of interest involving the Bidens. On Wednesday, they issued another request, this time to the Secret Service for travel records on Hunter Biden.
Jason Leopold contributed reporting.
This story was updated with a statement from Sens. Grassley and Johnson.
This story was updated with a statement from Sen. Wyden's office.