Republicans wince as their Ukrainian-born colleague thrashes Zelenskyy

House Republicans gave Ukraine-born Rep. Victoria Spartz a coveted platform to speak out against Russia’s war. They’re coming to regret that.

Spartz (R-Ind.), who has traveled to Ukraine a half-dozen times since the war began and spoken passionately about the conflict, shocked lawmakers in both parties recently with her intense criticisms of the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his confidants. She drew a rare rebuke last weekend from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, which accused her of “trying to earn extra political capital on baseless speculation.”

Inside the House GOP Conference, there’s a widespread fear that her posture is damaging U.S.-Ukraine relations at the worst possible time — and that she’s being played by forces that aim to weaken the Western alliance. GOP national-security hawks also worry that the MAGA wing of their party, where there’s already resistance to supporting Ukraine, will point to Spartz’s comments as justification.

They're concerned that Spartz's public break from Zelenskyy — and her corruption accusations about his closest aides — could portend future cracks in U.S. support for Ukraine, especially as the midterm elections approach.

“Her naiveness is hurting our own people,” said a GOP lawmaker who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, granted anonymity to speak candidly about a colleague. “It is not helpful to what we’re trying to do and I’m not sure her facts are accurate … We have vetted these guys.” The Republican warned that Spartz’s comments could “hurt” the war effort.

Asked for comment on Spartz’s remarks, one senior House Republican who was granted anonymity for the same reason offered a blunt reply: “What the fuck.”

A third House Republican granted anonymity to speak candidly about Spartz said she has a reputation for elbowing her way into briefings and meetings for committees she doesn't belong to, like the Foreign Affairs panel, where multiple members have tried to address her comments behind closed doors.

The Biden administration is even getting involved — another sign of growing worries that Spartz’s comments may damage cohesion among the Western coalition in defense of Kyiv. A Foreign Affairs Committee aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. intelligence community is planning to brief Spartz about her claims in a classified setting Friday morning.

While Zelenskyy’s political opponents have openly cheered Spartz, domestic political squabbles are largely getting sidelined while the country fights for its survival. Western nations’ longstanding concerns about corruption in Ukraine, an element of former President Donald Trump's first impeachment, have also been shelved in the interest of fostering both domestic and international unity against Russia’s invasion.

Spartz is dredging up old dirt on Zelenskyy and his advisers at a time when Ukraine’s future as an independent nation may depend on allying with him, her detractors say.

“I don’t share her criticisms,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has worked with Spartz on Ukraine-related legislation. “I believe that the Zelenskyy government and the Ukrainian people have risen to the moment. It is in our national security interest to stand with the Ukrainian people and their elected leadership.”

In statements and interviews, Spartz has pushed for better oversight of the U.S. weaponry flowing into Ukraine — an issue that has attracted bipartisan scrutiny.

But she has also accused Zelenskyy of “playing politics” and not “understanding” the seriousness of the conflict. And she has launched a crusade against his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, accusing the president's top aide of being in the pocket of Russia.

In the process of speaking out, she's raised years-old allegations, many of which Zelenskyy’s political foes have lobbed in the past without factual basis. She has said publicly that she believes Yermak should be fired for inhibiting the war effort — even as others say Spartz’s own actions are undeniably impeding it.

Spartz declined to answer questions on the record for this story, but her office provided a written statement to POLITICO that defends her criticisms of the Zelenskyy government. (She has previously put the onus on Yermak and others to prove her wrong.)

And she’s showing no sign of regret.

“Growing up in Ukraine and visiting six times since the war started, I have a comprehensive understanding of the situation on the ground,” Spartz said. “The stakes are too high to be reactive without deliberation — as intended for our institution.”

As she goes after Zelenskyy’s top aides, the first-term Republican has previously generated headlines for her poor staff retention rate. Current and former aides described to POLITICO a hostile work environment in which Spartz repeatedly berates her staffers.

The 43-year-old's Zelenskyy-gadfly persona this summer marks a sharp turnaround from her message on March 1, when she made an impassioned and tearful plea for the Biden administration to respond more forcefully to the crisis unfolding in her motherland. As Spartz described the struggle of some family members to survive bloody Russian assaults, House GOP leaders and dozens of rank-and-file members stood behind her, dressed in blue and yellow to match Ukraine’s flag, nodding in agreement.

Four-plus months later, there are far fewer signals in the conference that she is an authoritative voice on the matter. Spartz's latest posture is privately befuddling many of her colleagues, though none of them want to publicly rebuke a colleague over Ukraine — particularly given her personal ties to the situation — as the Russian attack itself becomes more politically thorny within the GOP.

Spartz has some defenders among House Republicans, but many of them sidestepped her remarks to argue generally that she is well-intentioned and passionate about the issue.

“Victoria has been a strong advocate of getting the people of Ukraine the tools they need to push back against Putin,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said during a press conference this week. “She’s very passionate about this. And at the end of the day, I know from all the conversations I’ve had with her that her heart and soul is tied to helping the people of Ukraine push back Putin’s military assault on that country.”

Spartz has refused to name the sources for her claims of improper behavior by Yermak and Zelenskyy's government. Meanwhile, they continue to prompt significant pushback not only from Ukrainian officials, but from Americans like former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who is working directly with Yermak on sanctions policy.

“Yermak most certainly does not strike me as being pro-Russian. He is stridently anti-Putin and his barbaric regime,” McFaul said in an interview. “If so, why would he be encouraging our group to think of new and creative ways to sanction Russians? And why then would the Russian government sanction many members of our working group, including even my research assistant?”

Christopher Miller contributed to this report.

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GOP laying early plans for its own Hunter Biden probes

It’s not every day that a House minority calls its investigative shots months before a likely takeover of power. Then again, Hunter Biden is no ordinary oversight target.

Top House Republicans are vowing to dig into the overseas business dealings of the president’s son if they claim the majority next year, as is expected — picking a battle with the Justice Department and Democratic lawmakers centered around some of the same themes that defined the Trump administration’s tempestuous relationship with Congress.

The younger Biden’s connections to a Chinese energy company are already under the DOJ’s microscope, with a grand jury hearing testimony earlier this year as part of an investigation into his tax dealings and possible violations of foreign lobbying laws.

But a federal inquiry isn’t deterring Republicans from pursuing broader allegations against Hunter Biden. The House GOP’s eagerness promises to test whether next year’s likely new majority can conduct legitimate oversight without falling down a rabbit hole of politically motivated allegations that have a murky provenance. Russian disinformation touching on Hunter Biden's business dealings, for example, emerged during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

“The House Oversight Committee is going to be all over Hunter Biden,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is slated to become chair of that powerful panel if Republicans win the majority in November.

“We’re going to focus on Hunter Biden not for political reasons,” Comer added, “but because we feel he’s a national security threat.”

While there’s a broad recognition on Capitol Hill that Hunter Biden’s financial moves are worthy of further investigation, the House GOP is all but telegraphing a do-over of the party's 2020 election cycle efforts. And it has signoff from the chamber’s top Republican.

“I know the grand jury is looking now, but I think there's a real need to understand what was always said, what other countries are paying him in the process,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a brief interview Tuesday. “I think it is definitely something we should look at.”

Comer said he hopes DOJ doesn’t indict Hunter Biden before Republicans come into power because it would give him a reason to ignore a congressional subpoena, setting up a high-profile fight with DOJ. And on Tuesday, House Republicans on the Oversight panel previewed their push by seeking a subpoena for the presidential son at a committee hearing centering on electric vehicles.

In recent years, GOP lawmakers indulged a number of questionably sourced claims about Hunter Biden's work with foreign companies that critics said were more intended to politically damage his father than to pursue genuine conflicts of interest. No evidence has emerged to show or suggest that Hunter Biden’s business deals have affected his father’s decision-making as president, though new reports about financial details found on a laptop that he left with a Delaware repair shop have resurrected Republican interest in finding smoking-gun proof.

Democrats are preemptively smacking down the Republican revival of Hunter Biden’s affairs. In private, they tend to seethe at what they see as GOP hypocrisy for trying to weaponize Biden's son when Trump repeatedly blurred lines between his business, family members and the government he ran for four years.

In public, Democrats simply argue that the GOP has no standing to look into the Biden family when it dismissed and downplayed the Trump family's behavior.

“Hunter Biden has never been in office and isn’t seeking office. Donald Trump led a failed coup against his government,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees. “The Republicans are obsessed with investigating Hunter Biden and have no interest in guarding against another Trump coup.”

What may well result next year is a constitutional clash with the DOJ as well as Democrats on one side, and Republicans with investigative ambitions on the other. And not just in the House — Senate Republicans are also intensifying their focus on Hunter Biden.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has pursued the first son since 2019 even amid warnings from his fellow Republicans that his actions were aiding Russian disinformation campaigns, said this is “information the American people ought to have.”

“These are investigations within the political realm where we’re talking about things that rise above just mere crimes — things that might not even be crimes — but that could in this case present such significant conflicts of interest that it could compromise a potential president,” Johnson said in a brief interview.

When Democrats sought to investigate Trump’s children who were involved in his administration, Republicans almost unanimously shrugged off evidence that the then-president's finances were replete with foreign entanglements and international deals that could have influenced official U.S. government policy during his time in office. Democrats investigated many of those leads anyway.

When it comes to Hunter Biden, the Biden presidential campaign was heavily involved in pushing back on some of the allegations that came out in 2020. But since Joe Biden took office, the White House has mostly ignored the controversy aside from emphasizing DOJ’s independence.

The president’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Sunday on ABC that Biden “is confident that his family did the right thing,” adding: “They’re private matters. They don’t involve the president.”

Republicans, however, have pointed to recent news stories about Hunter Biden's laptop to contend that their 2020 campaign claims that he conducted suspicious business dealings are now not only legitimized but redeemed.

A visibly frustrated Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a member of the Trump-allied Freedom Caucus, argued that the laptop was starved of public attention in the past thanks to a conspiracy between big tech and corporate media.

“Even media bias does not possibly cover the unanimous decision of all corporate media to spike this story,” Bishop said in an interview. “The American people will never get the square story from this American media. They will get the story only if a majority-Republican Congress uncovers it, otherwise it'll disappear forever.”

Other Republicans cite Democrats’ investigative pursuits targeting Trump’s adult children as justification for looking into Biden’s son — even though they rejected those efforts at the time. And some lawmakers with bipartisan predilections are also contending that the media would’ve treated Hunter Biden differently if his father were of a different party.

“To me, a lot of mainstream media refused to cover it and now suddenly it's legitimate,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a moderate who’s a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus. “If that had been a Trump kid, I guarantee you that there would have been 24/7 news coverage on that.”

Both Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) received significant pushback from their colleagues when they ramped up their Biden investigations in 2020, with some Republicans even suggesting it was politically motivated. Some Democratic senators even confronted Johnson about it during a classified briefing earlier that year, noting that Russian disinformation campaigns were focusing on Hunter Biden.

Given the recent reports about Hunter Biden’s business entanglements, Grassley said this week that he’s owed an apology.

“They ought to know that they ought to trust my investigation in the first place because of my reputation for investigations,” Grassley said in a brief interview. “But no, they tried to make it look like we were a tool of Russian disinformation. It’s just not right. They ought to be apologizing to Johnson and me.”

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