WASHINGTON — (AP) — Republican Sen. Mitt Romney is sharply criticizing an investigation by his own party into Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's son, saying it's "not the legitimate role of government" to try and damage political opponents.
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has said the committee will issue a report before the Nov. 3 election on Hunter Biden's activities in Ukraine. Johnson, a close ally of President Donald Trump, is leading the investigation into Burisma, a gas company in Ukraine that paid Hunter Biden to serve as a board member while Joe Biden was vice president to President Barack Obama.
Most Republican senators have been on board with Johnson’s inquiry. But Romney, a frequent Trump critic, has repeatedly made clear he has concerns about politicizing the committee’s work.
The Utah lawmaker, who was the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, had his strongest words yet for what he called the “Biden-Burisma” investigation at a committee meeting Wednesday, saying that the inquiry from the “outset had the earmarks of a political exercise.”
Romney added: “Obviously, it is the province of campaigns and political parties’ opposition research, the media, to carry out political endeavors, to learn about or dust up one’s opponent. But it’s not the legitimate role of government or Congress, or for taxpayer expense to be used in an effort to damage political opponents.”
Johnson, R-Wis., did not respond to the comments during the meeting. But he had earlier withdrawn from the meeting’s agenda a vote to authorize an additional subpoena, a move that Romney praised.
A committee aide said that the subpoena was withdrawn because the witness, Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, had agreed to testify voluntarily. The aide was not authorized to publicly discuss committee work taking place in private and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a statement responding to Romney's comments, Johnson spokesman Ben Voelkel said “the American people have the right to know” the facts of the investigation.
“This is Congress," Voelkel said. “Everything here has implications for politics and elections. The Committee is expressly authorized to investigate conflicts of interest, and its investigation into Burisma and US-Ukraine policy began well before the Democratic nominee for President had been decided.”
There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, and Hunter Biden has denied using his influence with his father to aid Burisma. In a statement, Joe Biden spokesman Andrew Bates called the investigation “disgraceful."
Senate Democrats have strongly objected to the inquiry and have charged that Johnson could be amplifying Russian propoganda to hurt Biden.
After Wednesday's meeting, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., offered a resolution calling for “the cessation of any Senate investigation or activity that allows Congress to act as a conduit for Russian disinformation.”
Johnson himself came to the floor to object, preventing the measure's passage. He denied that any Russian disinformation was part of the investigation, calling the Democrats' resolution “false charges" and “wild claims against me."
Republicans coming to Trump’s defense during and after last year’s impeachment trial have encouraged investigations of Hunter Biden’s activities, questioning whether his highly paid job created a conflict of interest for Joe Biden as the elder Biden worked on Ukraine policy in the Obama administration. Trump has frequently mentioned Hunter Biden’s activities during his reelection campaign.
The president's efforts to have Ukraine investigate Hunter Biden's role were also at the heart of last year's House impeachment investigation. Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens on a July phone call that was later revealed by a whistleblower's complaint.
The House impeached Trump in December for pressuring the Ukrainian government on investigations while withholding military aid to the country. The Senate acquitted him in February. Romney was the only Republican to vote for one of the articles of impeachment.
Johnson’s committee, along with the Senate Judiciary Committee, is also looking into the origins of the Justice Department’s Russia probe. The committee voted a second time to issue subpoenas in that investigation.