“I think there is more than sufficient evidence to open an investigation and at minimum answer the questions. Joe Biden may have a defense on the merits, but he’s never been — there’s never been an investigation,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Friday night after the House managers concluded their opening arguments in the impeachment case.
Cruz, along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have increased their talk of forcing either a special counsel investigation and, if the Justice Department declines, opening a more formal probe in that committee.
The investigation would focus on Hunter Biden’s 2014 appointment to the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father had that nation’s security interests as part of his vice-presidential portfolio.
Democrats see a simple motive for such an investigation: Biden’s strong position in the Democratic primary field and the chance to haunt his campaign should he emerge the front-runner after the early caucus and primary states in February and March.
“Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a Biden supporter.
That’s a reference to the Libyan city where terrorists attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA annex in 2012, killing the U.S. ambassador and three others. Republicans hounded Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state and the future 2016 Democratic nominee against Trump, over her handling of that incident, including a more than two-year investigation by a select House committee.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), then the House majority leader, acknowledged in a late 2015 interview that Clinton’s “numbers are dropping” and “she’s untrustable,” something that was “part of the strategy” in starting the probe.
In street parlance, he said the quiet part aloud.
And for Democrats, this is deja vu all over again.
Cruz struggled to explain why Senate Republicans waited until now to talk about a Biden probe. He paused for five full seconds before finally answering.
“I think there needs to be additional investigation but right now we’re in the middle of an impeachment trial,” he said.
It’s been almost six years since Burisma, the Ukrainian company, announced in a news release that Hunter Biden had joined its board and more than three years since Joe Biden left the White House. Republicans have held the Senate majority for more than five years.
“There was absolutely no interest in this topic for years,” Coons said.
Over their three-day presentation in the impeachment trial, House managers connected Trump’s interest in pressuring Ukraine officials to investigate Biden to his entry into the 2020 race.
By late October, Graham told reporters that Trump and his close allies were pressuring him to use the Judiciary Committee to launch Biden-Ukraine investigations but that he refused to do so because he would not “turn the Senate into a circus.”
He said his portfolio included the Justice Department’s investigation into the 2016 campaign, but matters like Ukraine fell into other committees.
A month later, as pressure from Trump mounted, Graham sent a letter to the State Department requesting documents related to Biden’s 2016 calls to the president of Ukraine at that time, Petro Poroshenko, who lost his reelection bid last year to Volodymyr Zelensky.
Aides to Graham did not respond to requests for an update on the State Department’s response.
Previously a close friend of Biden’s, Graham now regularly suggests that the former vice president forced Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a charge that has never been proved. Former U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said the prosecutor’s investigation of Burisma had been dormant. A bipartisan group in Congress hoped that the change in prosecutors backed by Biden and others would lead to more aggressive anti-corruption investigations, punctuated by a February 2016 letter to Poroshenko from three Senate Republicans and five Democrats demanding a shake-up of his prosecutor’s office.
During a trial break Friday, Graham sort of said the quiet part out loud.
Of Biden, he said, “I don’t think he’s corrupt,” and he said Hunter Biden’s board position might have just been “bad judgment.” Graham said a main reason Biden needed to be investigated was because Trump had been investigated by the team of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“Nobody has done an investigation anywhere near like the Mueller investigation of the Bidens, and I think they should. Once this is over, the Congress will do it if we can’t have an outside entity do it,” Graham told reporters.
“We cannot have an America where only one side is looked at,” Graham added, ignoring the exhaustive reviews of Biden by his Democratic rivals and the news media. “We’re not going to live in a country where only Republicans get looked at.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) went a bit further in explaining Trump’s motives in pressuring Zelensky to launch corruption investigations.
“The president ended up with suddenly a new president in Ukraine who ran on and won overwhelmingly on an anti-corruption agenda,” Cramer said Friday. “That presented an opportunity to look more closely at this relationship between Joe Biden, Ukraine and his son Hunter’s good fortune, being well paid for a job he wasn’t qualified to do.”
In their initial opening arguments Saturday, Trump’s lawyers steered clear of talking about Hunter Biden and Ukraine, but most Senate Republicans want that to change in their higher-profile second phase Monday afternoon.
Once the impeachment trial is finished, Cramer said “it’s only appropriate” that the Senate investigate the Bidens.
Some Democrats believe voters will see such a move for what it is. “I think it could well backfire if they abuse the power that Congress has for venal political purposes,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Friday after the managers finished.
Voters expect that out on the campaign trail, not Congress, Blumenthal said. “I know it may sound naive, but I think when we’re done here the American people will have very little appetite for partisan conflict here. There’s going to be so much of it during campaigns.”
But Coons remembers going to polling places on Election Day 2016.
“Can you explain to me,” he asked one voter, “what it is about emails and Benghazi that would make you vote for or against someone?”
“I don’t really know,” the voter said, “but there must be something wrong.”