UPDATE (May 20, 2020, 2:20 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect Wednesday's Senate committee vote to subpoena Blue Star Strategies. The vote passed.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has "broad jurisdiction over government operations" with "primary responsibilities to study the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of all agencies and departments of the federal government." Given everything happening right now, Johnson's committee would seem to have plenty of topics to investigate and analyze.
Between the White House's and the Justice Department's attempts to undermine the Mueller report and the president's response to the coronavirus, a committee tasked with ensuring the efficacy of the federal government should be working nonstop. And yet, to date, Johnson hasn't issued a single subpoena on any matter that has unfolded during Donald Trump's presidency.
Given everything happening right now, Johnson’s committee would seem to have plenty of topics to investigate and analyze.
In recent weeks, the American public has learned that a donor to Trump and the Republican National Committee received nearly $27 million in government funding via the coronavirus bailout fund for his private jet company. Close to $800,000 went to a company whose largest shareholder is the president's campaign manager, Brad Parscale. Almost $3 million went to a data collection company that is working for Trump's re-election campaign.
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Dozens of lobbyists with ties to the Trump administration or the Trump campaign are being paid tens of thousands of dollars to lobby for private companies hoping to get access to coronavirus funding. And meanwhile, Trump just fired another inspector general, who was in the middle of investigating a legally questionable weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. I spent five years working at the House Oversight Committee; this is what we would have called a "target-rich environment."
But instead of acting as a watchdog for the American people, Johnson is using his committee perch to act as a hatchet man for Trump's re-election campaign. Instead of investigating the bank heist in broad daylight that is the coronavirus bailout fund or protecting inspectors general from the president's flagrant abuse of executive power, Johnson is conducting taxpayer-funded opposition research. Specifically, this means renewing the GOP campaign against the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.
On Wednesday, Johnson held a subpoena vote for Blue Star Strategies as part of the investigation into the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings and Biden's son Hunter Biden. Blue Star Strategies represented Burisma while Joe Biden was vice president and Hunter Biden sat on Burisma's board.
During Trump's impeachment trial, Republicans claimed that Joe Biden pushed to remove Ukraine's top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to protect Hunter Biden from an investigation into allegations of corruption at Burisma. But there has never been any evidence that the elder Biden acted inappropriately, and, in fact, Shokin wasn't actively investigating Burisma when he was fired.
Nevertheless, the GOP has been trying for months to reinvigorate the narrative. The subpoena for Blue Star Strategies will be the first issued by Johnson this year, foreshadowing exactly how Senate Republicans intend to weaponize their oversight authority over the next few months: by breathing life into debunked conspiracy theories to damage the apparent Democratic nominee.
This is nothing more than a repeat of what House Republicans did to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with their Benghazi hearings in 2016.
This is nothing more than a repeat of what House Republicans did to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi hearings in 2016. Republicans are doubling down on the strategy that worked so well for them in the lead-up to the last presidential election. And they are hoping the media will ignore the blatant hypocrisy and double standards. Perhaps if Republican lawmakers say the words "Biden" and "Burisma" enough times, the association will seep into America's collective psyche, just as "Benghazi" and "Hillary's emails" did a few years ago.
Republicans are also counting on the Biden campaign to dismiss the attacks as not worth the time or effort to dispute. It's likely Biden's campaign will cling to the perhaps outdated belief that dignifying such nonsense with a response actually boosts its credibility. But the last time a Democratic presidential campaign adopted a similar mentality, the candidate lost. Republicans know it's much harder to explain the truth and much easier to promote an exaggeration or a lie.
As a communicator, I've always believed you can't fight something with nothing. The longer you let the other side define the issue, the harder it is to break through and debunk it. There is nothing to indicate that, as vice president, Biden acted in any way to benefit his son. Nor is there any evidence that supports the often-repeated Trump lie that Biden personally forced out the allegedly quite corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor.
The truth is, Senate Republicans, including Ron Johnson, were for Joe Biden's anti-corruption efforts before they were against them, even signing a letter in support of reforms Biden was pushing in meetings with the Ukrainian prosecutor general's office.
But that was then. Now, Senate Republicans are engineering a baseless political scandal under the guise of a legitimate congressional investigation. And the last time congressional Republicans did this, it worked.