The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved another round of subpoenas Wednesday for depositions to dozens of officials from the Obama administration as part of the panel’s investigation into the FBI’s 2016 Russia investigation.
The subpoenas – which were sent to such officials as former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey – are the latest sign that the committee is ramping up its probes of President Donald Trump’s political opponents ahead of the November election. The subpoenas approved on a party-line vote Wednesday were separate from the panel’s investigation into a Ukrainian energy firm and former Vice President Joe Biden, which Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson has said he plans to release soon.
But Democrats have accused Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, of using both investigations to try to smear Trump’s opponents ahead of the election – and advance a narrative pushed by Russian-linked operatives to denigrate Biden.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, expressed concerns that the Ukrainian investigation “had the earmarks of a political exercise.”
“It’s not the legitimate role of government, for Congress or for taxpayer expense, to be used in an effort to damage political opponents,” Romney said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Johnson has said he soon plans to release the findings from the GOP-led investigation into Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who was on Burisma’s board. Johnson told GOP supporters earlier this week that the probe would show “Vice President Biden’s unfitness for office,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“I don’t think it will reflect well on him,” Johnson told reporters Tuesday.
Trump and his allies repeatedly made unfounded and false claims during last year’s impeachment proceedings alleging that Biden and his son acted corruptly in Ukraine, centered around Biden’s push in Ukraine to remove the country’s prosecutor general. But that effort was supported by US policy and Western allies, and even Johnson himself backed it at the time.
Johnson defended the panel’s investigations at Wednesday’s committee meeting. He denied that he had received any information for the probe from Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department last week as an active Russian agent spreading disinformation to denigrate Biden.
Johnson accused Democrats of spreading disinformation themselves by alleging he was working with Derkach, saying they carried out a “coordinated smear” to “repeat, distort and embellish false charges.”
The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, charged Wednesday that Johnson’s investigations were “designed to influence the presidential election.” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said Johnson had “admitted the true purpose of this sham: to bail out Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.”
Romney has previously expressed reservations about Johnson’s Ukraine investigation being a political endeavor. He voted in favor of the subpoenas on Wednesday, but made a point to note the differences between the investigation into the FBI’s Russia probe that’s looking into the opening of the investigation and “unmasking” requests made in the Obama administration, and the Ukraine investigation that’s targeting Biden.
Romney said Wednesday that the Ukraine probe “from the outset, had the earmarks of a political exercise.”
“I’m fearful that comments made in the media recently have only confirmed that perspective,” he added, a nod to Johnson’s comments earlier this week.
Romney told CNN Wednesday that his earlier vote in favor of the Ukraine investigation subpoenas allowed him to “get some protections” in the scope of the investigation. Romney resisted Johnson’s initial plan to subpoena Andrii Telizhenko, a Ukrainian who has spread 2016 election conspiracy theories and, like Derkach, has worked with the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Romney says he has yet to see the committee’s report or the testimony the panel has taken.
Austin Altenburg, a Johnson spokesman, said in response to Romney’s comments, “This is Congress. Everything here has implications for politics and elections. The Committee is expressly authorized to investigate conflicts of interest, and its investigation into Burisma and US-Ukraine policy began well before the Democratic nominee for President had been decided. The American people have the right to know what did and did not happen.”
The committee has previously authorized subpoenas for documents to most of the same officials it subpoenaed for depositions on Wednesday. The party-line vote Wednesday added seven new officials to the list, including former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
The committee was planning to issue a subpoena to an Obama-era State Department official, Bridget Brink, who is now US Ambassador to Slovakia, but Johnson said on Tuesday that interview was scheduled voluntarily.
A person familiar with the investigation said Obama administration State Department official Amos Hochstein is also slated to be interviewed by the committee on Thursday. The panel has already interviewed numerous Obama-era State Department officials, including George Kent, a key witness during the impeachment proceedings.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Kara Scannell and Manu Raju contributed to this report.