GOP undeterred by criticism over Biden probes and plans aggressive election-year push

The Republicans leading the investigations say they’re about accountability and oversight, not politics. But the investigations are being openly cheered on by Trump, who told Republicans they need to get “tough” on issues like “unmasking,” one of the areas where Grenell has provided newly declassified documents. The probes have also been endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, as he fights to keep the Senate majority in GOP hands in the 2020 election where the fate of Senate Republicans will be closely tied to Trump’s.

Still, the pursuit of investigations heading into the election season comes with risks for Republicans of looking overtly political at a time when the public is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Some top Senate Republicans say they can’t allow their focus to shift away from the pandemic response.

“I think they’ll go where the investigation leads and follow it. My view right now is to stay focused on the agenda we have, and I’m talking about how we’re going to help the people get through this pandemic and get the economy back on track,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican. “Other things are going to be happening at the same time, but I would hope that as we head into the next few months and the election starts coming into clearer view, that we talk about how we’re going to respond to the very real concerns of the American people.”

So far, there’s little dissent within the Senate GOP Conference about the pursuit of investigations against Trump’s opponent — even as many Republicans denounced House Democrats for mounting what they said were overtly political investigations and impeachment proceedings aimed at hurting the President’s reelection chances.

“It’s not to say I agree with every investigation, but I think we can certainly do both,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican up for reelection this fall, referring to acting on a pandemic response as well.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson held a vote Wednesday for a subpoena in his probe into the Ukrainian energy firm that hired Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has scheduled a vote for a wide-ranging subpoena authorization as part of his investigation into the FBI’s Russia investigation, which could see him hauling in senior Obama administration officials in the coming months.

And Johnson, Graham and GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa have all requested Grenell and Attorney General William Barr declassify documents from the Obama administration related to the FBI’s Russia probe and its prosecution of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. On Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, didn’t rule out getting involved in looking into the matters either “to the extent they involve oversight over intelligence activities.”

GOP could pursue Hunter Biden

Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican member of Johnson’s committee, suggested the GOP might have to call Hunter Biden into testify — or at least produce records.

“I do think that there should be repercussions: What exactly they are depends on where the facts are,” Paul said. “I do think it’s wrong for people to abuse their office to get business for their kids. … It doesn’t look good.”

Trump and his allies have repeatedly made unfounded and false claims alleging that Biden and his son acted corruptly in Ukraine. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates accused Johnson of “running a political errand” with the subpoena related to Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that hired Hunter Biden.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney backed Johnson’s subpoena, but said, “I do” when CNN asked if he thinks the panel’s probe appears political.

Asked if he would object if the committee began to target Hunter Biden more directly, Romney said Thursday: “That will be determined in the light of the particular circumstances that will be presented.”

Democrats have denounced the investigations as a blatant attempt to boost Trump’s reelection campaign. “The conspiracy caucus is back with a vengeance,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday.

Asked if the probe might hurt Biden politically, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said: “There’s nothing there. They’re just trying to say they have an investigation without actually having any substance on it that I can see.”

The chairmen leading the investigations say they are conducting legitimate oversight. They argue their probes aren’t about trying to damage Biden but rather about holding accountable the officials who went after Trump and his associates.

“I think Democrats could care less about the abuse of power, and I do. I supported the Mueller investigation because I thought it was important to have someone take a look. We are going to investigate the investigators,” Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Wednesday.

Johnson said that it had been “way too long” for the public to view the documents he was seeking, and he dismissed Democratic attacks on his probe.

“The Democrats are objecting and I think maybe they’re protesting too much — it actually raises my suspicion level, what is to be found out in these documents,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Sen. James Lankford, another member of Johnson’s panel, said the next focus will be on the actions by the State Department under Obama to “give special favors and access.”

Asked about the appearance that the probe is political, the Oklahoma Republican said: “Everything in this place is political. There are a series of questions there aren’t answers to at this point.”

Administration has declassified Flynn documents

The senators’ probes have been fueled by disclosures from the Trump administration after Barr directed a review of the Flynn case, which prompted the Justice Department to move to drop the charges that Flynn previously pleaded guilty to. The administration has declassified numerous documents relating to the Flynn case in recent weeks, including a list from Grenell of more than three-dozen Obama administration officials who made “unmasking” requests during the Trump transition and could have been provided foreign intelligence reports that identified Flynn.

The process of unmasking, in which certain US officials can request to see the hidden names of Americans in foreign intelligence reports, is part of routine intelligence gathering, and the number of unmasking requests has increased in the Trump administration. The National Security Agency said its standard procedures were followed, including a justification for the unmasking requests.

Trump and his campaign have used Biden’s presence on the list of officials to attack the former vice president on the issue. “Americans have a right to know the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement shortly after the unmasking documents were made public.

Senate panel advances Trump's spy chief pick

The GOP senators have now asked for the names of officials who have made unmasking requests throughout 2016 that included Trump campaign officials, and Graham’s subpoena would include information relating to the unmasking requests. Democrats have gotten in on the declassification effort, too, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, asked Grenell to make public the content of Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador in which Flynn later lied about discussing Russian sanctions.

Grenell’s last day at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is Tuesday, but the Republicans could have an ally to continue declassifying documents in incoming Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who was one of the leading Republicans questioning the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Reports could be issued before the election

Both Johnson and Graham say they plan to issue reports laying out their findings in the summer and the fall — before the election — meaning they will inevitably be viewed through a campaign prism. Graham, who has spoken to Trump about his probe, said he expects his report to be issued in September or October.

“It’s clearly designed to find out what happened to ‘Crossfire Hurricane,'” Graham said, referring to the name of the FBI probe, pushing back against the accusations of launching a political investigation.

At the Homeland Security Committee meeting to approve Johnson’s subpoena Wednesday, Democrats vocally objected to authorizing the subpoena, arguing the committee was not doing enough to investigate the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But Senate Republicans say they can successfully tackle both issues.

“I don’t think anyone is taking their eye off the ball,” said GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. “I don’t think these investigations divert at all.”

CNN’s Lauren Fox and Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.

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