A top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered senior State Department officials to compile additional documents for two Republican senators investigating the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe and Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine, according to an internal memo obtained by POLITICO.
The memo, dated Aug. 17, is in response to a July 28 request from Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa for records and information about the bureau’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation and the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. The memo asked officials to compile specific materials related to the 2016-era Russia investigation as part of a wide-ranging document request from the senators that included information about Ukraine and Obama officials.
It shows the senators are actively collecting documents in an investigation that has taken on political overtones — and one Democrats say has been seeded with Russian disinformation — less than 80 days from the election.
The Pompeo aide who tasked the officials with collecting the records, State Department Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna, ordered recipients of the memo to “immediately search their files for any electronic or paper records responsive to this request, to include emails, documents, spreadsheets, databases, and electronic media, etc.”
Kenna specifically asked for all communications in 2016 and 2017 between former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and any then-current State Department official that centered on the Trump campaign or Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled a dossier of allegations against president Donald Trump. Kenna also asked for similar records from the same time period showing communications between former Bill Clinton senior adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who was also a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and freelance journalist Cody Shearer and any official then at the State Department.
The memo also asks recipients to refer to Grassley and Johnson’s letter — which asks for more records about the Obama administration’s Ukraine policies, including whether anti-corruption funding or support to Kyiv may have been “misused” — when considering document searches, and notes that the department has already addressed some of the other senators’ requests related to Ukraine and the Bidens.
In a statement provided after this article was published, a State Department official said: “The Department regularly receives oversight and investigative requests from Congress and public information requests via the Freedom of Information Act. It is required by the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), the basic regulations for the Department, for the Executive Secretariat to coordinate searches for any documents via a written “tasker,” and this leaked internal memo is part of that required process that is undertaken in response to both FOIA information requests and Congressional oversight and investigations requests. The Executive Secretariat position in no way weighs in on policy issues.”
The memo, which is marked “sensitive but unclassified,” was issued as House Democrats are seeking information about the State Department’s level of compliance with the GOP-led investigations. It also lists a “due date” of Aug. 28, around the time Johnson is expected to release public reports on his investigations.
A spokesman for Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The State Department also did not immediately respond. Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, noted that the senators’ July 28 letter included in the memo is “largely a recap of old inquiries that, thus far, they’ve failed to respond to.”
“Obviously, getting responses to the senators’ inquiries would be a welcomed development,” Foy added. “Better late than never.”
Democratic congressional aides who spoke to POLITICO described the State Department's handling of the Johnson and Grassley document request as extremely unusual, with clear evidence of politicization. For one thing, the aides said, Grassley and Johnson's document request did not set date ranges for any of the responsive documents, but State Department officials decided to cut them off at December 2017 — a limit that would ensure any potentially damaging evidence of Trump's own actions in Ukraine were excluded.
Secondly, the senators' request didn't include a deadline for the State Department to respond, an ordinary feature of oversight requests. But the State Department tasked its top officials to respond by Aug. 28, a deadline that comports with Johnson's efforts to release a final report in September. And, the aides noted, the State Department's marshaling of resources to aid Johnson and Grassley in response to a voluntary request stands in stark contrast to the department's refusal to share any documents with the House, even in response to subpoenas.
"There is no question that this is a politicized misuse of department resources," one of the aides said. "What's remarkable is they're so brazen about it."
Under ordinary circumstances, the State Department would treat Democratic and Republican document requests equally and negotiate to limit the burdens placed on the agencies. But the apparent acquiescence to the parameters set by Johnson and Grassley's letter, without preceding negotiations to limit the scope of the request, suggests an unusual level of deference to the committees, the aides said.
House Democrats have railed against the State Department, accusing top officials there of cooperating with GOP probes while ignoring their requests for documents. They point to the department’s refusal to provide any documents to the House during its impeachment investigation last fall, even as a series of high-level witnesses testified willingly and against the administration’s wishes about what they described as an effort by Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
This time around, the State Department has been making witnesses available to the Republican investigators without the need for subpoenas, including top Europe and Eurasia official George Kent, who sat for a deposition before Johnson’s panel earlier this month.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has subpoenaed the department for copies of any documents being provided to Johnson and Grassley, and on Monday he ripped Pompeo for ignoring the request.
“I am deeply concerned by what appears to be a partisan misuse of Department of State resources to assist Senate Republicans in a political smear of Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden,” Engel wrote at the time.
Kenna, who was nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Peru, was a key figure in the House impeachment of Trump, acting as a gatekeeper for Pompeo during crucial outreach from Trump allies seeking to discredit the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Kenna told a Senate panel during her confirmation hearing this month that she found some of that outreach, including from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, “deeply disturbing.”
Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Grassley, who chairs the Finance Committee, have faced intense scrutiny from Democrats who have alleged the GOP senators are misusing their power in order to target the president’s political opponents. They have also accused Johnson in particular of using Russian disinformation to denigrate Biden.
Johnson has vehemently denied that claim, but last week he said his investigations “would certainly help Donald Trump win reelection and certainly be pretty good, I would say, evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden.”
Earlier this year, the Homeland Security Committee granted Johnson wide-ranging authority to subpoena a slew of former Obama administration officials in connection with the panel’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe and the Obama White House’s handling of the presidential transition period.