Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign on Wednesday blasted a leading Republican senator for pursuing a probe related to his son Hunter Biden, calling it a "smear" aimed at trying to save President Donald Trump's job.
The apparent Democratic presidential nominee's campaign lashed out after a committee chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., voted to authorize issuing a subpoena to a public relations firm that did work for a Ukraine gas company, Burisma Holdings, on whose board Hunter Biden sat for years.
The PR firm, Blue Star Strategies, wrote to Johnson on Wednesday, saying it did not understand why the formal legal demand for information was necessary since the company has repeatedly cooperated with the committee's past requests for documents.
The Biden campaign tied the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's vote to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 92,000 Americans.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Joe Biden's campaign, told CNBC in an email, "We're in the middle of the worst public health and economic crisis in a century, and what is Senator Johnson focused on? Running a political errand for Donald Trump by wasting Homeland Security Committee time and resources attempting to resurrect a craven, previously-debunked smear against Vice President Biden."
"Then again, this is consistent with how Senator Johnson has callously downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak while the death toll rises," Bates said. "Senator Johnson should be working overtime to save American lives — but instead he's just trying to save the President's job."
Republicans are investigating whether Blue Star Strategies tried to exploit Hunter Biden's connection to Burisma when his father was serving as President Barack Obama's vice president to "gain access to and potentially influence U.S. government agencies," according to Johnson.
Johnson, whose committee's Democratic members voted against issuing the subpoena, told reporters that he would like to release a report on the Burisma investigation in June.
Burisma and Hunter Biden's connection to it were central issues in Trump's impeachment last year by the Democratic-led House of Representatives.
Trump and his associates last summer pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce investigations into allegations against the Bidens, as well as into a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Hunter Biden was on Burisma's board when his father, while serving as vice president, pressured Ukraine's government to fire a prosecutor in that country because of concerns that the prosecutor was not doing enough to fight corruption. Joe Biden's stance was in line with that of European governments concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
But Trump and his allies argued that Joe Biden was acting out of concern that the prosecutor was investigating Burisma.
Trump was acquitted after a trial in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accused his GOP counterparts on Wednesday of trying to help Trump's re-election campaign by engaging in "phony investigations."
"Senate Republicans are not just ignoring the coronavirus, they're practically sprinting towards a partisan election, making this chamber part of a re-election campaign, not what it was ever intended to be by the founding fathers or anyone else until this fever to bow down to President Trump's wild conspiracy theories has overtaken just about every Senate Republican," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
In a letter to Johnson earlier Wednesday, Blue Star CEO Karen Tramontano said that the firm in early December "responded immediately and agreed to cooperate" when Johnson asked for the company's assistance with the probe.
Tramontano wrote that the firm in mid-December "submitted answers in writing to the Committee's questions and we provided documents about our meetings with the U.S. Government regarding Burisma."
She noted that in mid-March, Blue Star was asked "to provide additional information." But the coronavirus outbreak and a "stay at home" order in Washington, D.C., delayed its response to that request, she wrote.
Earlier this week, Tramontano wrote, "we provided answers and additional supporting documents to all the Committee's question outlined in your December 3, 2019, letter."
She noted that the committee then "expanded its request" and asked for additional documents. That information was provided Tuesday, she wrote.
"At every opportunity we have indicated to the Committee that it is our intention to cooperate," Tramontano wrote. "At no time have we ever stated or indicated that we would not cooperate."
"Therefore, we are puzzled, despite our willingness to cooperate, why the Committee is proceeding to vote on a subpoena."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., included the letter in a Twitter post that called the committee's vote "a political show."
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Wednesday said that continuing the probe into Hunter Biden during the Covid-19 pandemic "makes no sense whatsoever."
"Over 90,000 people who have lost their lives, we've got an unprecedented amount of unemployment that's sweeping across the country, we need to be focused on the crisis," Peters said.
But Austin Alternberg, spokesman for the GOP majority on the committee, said in an email to CNBC, "A bipartisan group of committee members suggested that we subpoena Blue Star Strategies, so we authorized that today."
"The fact is Blue Star has delayed our efforts for more than five months, and even refused to let our staff speak to their attorney until last week — despite the fact that he was speaking with the Ranking Member's staff," Alternberg said.
"Their only real efforts came after [the Republican majority formally announced its plan to authorize a subpoena], and we know even those have been woefully incomplete," he added.
"The American people deserve to know the extent to which the U.S.-based, Democrat-led consulting company leveraged its connections within the Obama administration to try to gain access to and influence U.S. government agencies on behalf of its corrupt client, Burisma. We are looking forward to receiving a full response to all of our questions."
Also Wednesday, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a letter to four government agencies asked if Trump is "weaponizing" those agencies by forcing them to cooperate with investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden.
The letter, obtained by NBC News, asked the heads of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury and the National Archives if they are "applying different standards" to congressional requests for documents and information by cooperating with Republican investigations but stonewalling Democratic inquiries about Trump.
"I am troubled that President Trump may be weaponizing the executive branch in advance of the 2020 elections by directing agencies to comply with congressional investigations designed to hurt his political opponents," Murphy wrote, "while stonewalling legitimate oversight investigations into the actions of his own administration."