Pompeo aide orders State Department to provide Biden, Russia probe documents

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.

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Democrats: Packets sent to Trump allies are part of foreign plot to damage Biden

Top congressional Democrats are sounding the alarm about a series of packets mailed to prominent allies of President Donald Trump — material they say is part of a foreign disinformation plot to damage former vice president Joe Biden, according to new details from a letter the lawmakers delivered to the FBI last week.

The packets, described to POLITICO by two people who have seen the classified portion of the Democrats’ letter, were sent late last year to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and then-White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

The packets were sent amid a Democratic push to impeach Trump over his effort to pressure Ukraine's president to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, the sources said. Graham and Grassley denied having received the material in question, and Mulvaney and Nunes declined repeated requests for comment. One person familiar with the matter said the information was not turned over to the FBI. The FBI did not return a request for comment.

The letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray — authored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees — also included a public request that the bureau brief all lawmakers. It came amid increasingly vocal warnings from Democrats, including from Biden’s presidential campaign, about foreign interference in the 2020 race and fear of another Kremlin-led effort to boost Trump’s re-election prospects.

Republicans were not asked to join the Democrats’ push for a briefing and they have since rejected it as a partisan effort.

The classified addendum to the public version of the letter included intelligence material that “draws, in large part, from the executive branch’s own reporting and analysis,” according to a congressional official.

The packets, the sources said, were sent by Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who met with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Kyiv last December to discuss investigating the Biden family.

In a statement to POLITICO, Derkach said he sent the materials to the lawmakers and Mulvaney with the goal of “creating an inter-parliamentary association called ‘Friends of Ukraine STOP Corruption.’” He added that he recently notified Grassley, Johnson, Graham, and Democratic Sens. Gary Peters (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) “about the content and materials published and voiced” at his press conferences.

Spokespeople for Peters and Wyden said their offices had never received anything from Derkach.

A spokesman for Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, initially deferred questions to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is investigating Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Another Graham spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said the senator believes any such information should be handed over to the Justice Department or the intelligence committees to be vetted.

“Having said that, we aren’t familiar with receiving any information from this individual,” Bishop added.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, similarly called the claims “false” and said his office has never received information from Derkach “nor have we made any effort to contact him.” He added that Grassley, who has partnered with Johnson on many of his investigations that have remained out of the public view, had not been given access to the classified attachment to the Democrats’ letter, and slammed Democrats for “running to the press with leaks apparently from classified documents and falsehoods.”

Johnson’s spokesman, Austin Altenburg, said “the claims are false” and later said the senator has “never received nor would we ever collect information from this individual or individuals like him.” Another former Ukrainian lawmaker, however, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, told The Washington Post earlier this month that he gave materials, including tapes allegedly featuring Biden, to Johnson’s committee.

Derkach appeared to post at least some of the materials he claims to have sent to the lawmakers and Mulvaney on his website, NabuLeaks, which he set up last year as a platform for his allegations against the Bidens and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

In a December letter to Nunes that he posted on the site, Derkach said he would be sending the congressman materials that included “the facts of inefficient use of U.S. taxpayers' funds,” excerpts from a related criminal proceeding, and a transcription of a press conference he had held that appeared to include leaked audio of Biden speaking to Poroshenko. Derkach said in the letter that he would be sending the same materials to Mulvaney.

Derkach denies that his aim is to damage Biden’s presidential prospects, and says he is not working on behalf of the Kremlin. He has said previously that “the main purpose of our activity is pursuing the interests of Ukraine, exposing international corruption, [and] maintaining partnership relations between strategic partners — Ukraine and the USA.”

Derkach, who was formerly aligned with Ukraine’s pro-Russia Party of Regions and is now an independent, is an alumnus of Moscow’s FSB academy, formerly known as the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB. Derkach has denied any connections to foreign intelligence services.

Several of the people Derkach has made allegations against over the last year have since been called as witnesses in Johnson’s investigation, including former special envoy for international energy affairs Amos Hochstein, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, former State Department official Victoria Nuland and career diplomat George Kent, who now serves as a deputy assistant secretary of state. Kent, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, is slated to testify before Johnson’s committee as soon as Friday.

The overlap has heightened Democrats’ long-held suspicions that the probe has become a vehicle for what they describe as “laundering” a foreign influence campaign to damage Biden. Some Democrats have even called Johnson an unwitting agent of Russian disinformation. POLITICO previously reported that the classified attachment mentions Johnson’s investigation as a source of Democrats’ concerns about potential Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election. The public letter does not specify the reasons for that concern.

Wray has previously said Americans should share with the FBI any information from foreign governments or their emissaries intended to influence the election.

"If any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation-state, or anybody acting on behalf of a nation-state, about influencing or interfering with an election then that's something the FBI would want to know about,” Wray said on June 12, 2019 — a day before Trump rebuked him and said he would probably accept such help.

Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has maintained that the investigation is legitimate and that his staffers thoroughly vet all of the information that they receive.

“We’re being very careful with our investigation. This information that supposedly was delivered to us — we didn’t get anything. I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Johnson said this week, referring to the contention that his investigation is based on Russian disinformation. “We look at everything we get in, and I take everything with a huge grain of salt. We’re very careful. We vet this stuff.”

Hunter Biden has acknowledged that he secured the Burisma position due in part to his last name. But the Biden campaign has slammed the broader Johnson investigation—which is predicated largely on Biden’s efforts to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor who Johnson has acknowledged “the whole world” wanted gone—as a “desperate taxpayer-funded smear campaign” based “on a farcical, long-debunked, hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory.”

Johnson recently subpoenaed a Democratic public-affairs firm that did consulting work for Burisma, and is eyeing subpoenas for Hochstein and Tony Blinken, a senior foreign policy adviser to Biden’s campaign.

“We’re gathering information, but I’m not aware of anything that is Russian disinformation,” Johnson added. “We’re going to vet, we’re going to validate everything we do.”

Graham has similarly cautioned that information originating from a foreign source should be thoroughly vetted by U.S. intelligence agencies, warning in February that “Russia is playing us all like a fiddle.”

The classified details in the Democrats’ letter stemmed partly from information provided by the intelligence community to the so-called Gang of Eight. The group includes Pelosi, Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and intelligence committee leaders in both parties.

Some Democrats have obliquely referenced the intelligence, suggesting it refers to a nefarious Kremlin-backed influence campaign akin to the one that roiled the 2016 election.

“I have read the intelligence behind this concern. It’s highly credible and should be briefed to every Member of Congress. Our elections belong to us,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) in a Wednesday tweet.

Reached by phone, Swalwell declined to elaborate on any aspects of the intelligence that gave him concern.

Although Republicans have been similarly tight-lipped, they pointed to statements like Swalwell’s to suggest Democrats are attempting to weaponize classified intelligence to harm Republicans politically.

“It was clearly a partisan letter,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO when asked about the Democrats’ letter to Wray.

Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this story.

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