There is a certain pattern to modern impeachment inquiries. They typically begin after the discovery of blatantly incriminating evidence. In 1998 the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry only after DNA tests on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress exposed that Bill Clinton had lied under oath about their affair.
In 2019 the House opened its impeachment inquiry only after it received reports that Donald Trump had attempted to coerce President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine into investigating Trump’s chief domestic political opponent. The day after Nancy Pelosi announced the inquiry, the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, and Americans could see that Trump did indeed press Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, as a “favor” in response to Ukraine’s request for Javelin anti-tank missiles.
And we all know what happened after Jan. 6, 2021. The House initiated the second impeachment of Trump only after his weekslong festival of lies about election fraud culminated in a violent attack on the Capitol.
On Monday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ordered the House Oversight, Judiciary and Ways and Means Committees to start an impeachment inquiry into Biden without anything approaching comparable evidence. Indeed, the absence of such evidence was used as a perverse justification for the impeachment inquiry. The pretext is the purported need to grant greater investigatory authority to House committees examining whether Biden lied about his business dealings with his son Hunter and whether the president granted Hunter “special treatment” in the ongoing criminal investigation of Hunter’s potential tax and gun crimes.
But at the risk of sounding crass, where is the blue dress? Where is the phone call? Where is the riot? There’s little question that Biden family members — especially Hunter but also Joe Biden’s brother James and daughter-in-law Hallie — have profited enormously over the course of Joe Biden’s political career. But evidence that the president was himself involved in Hunter’s schemes or shared in any of the profits is thus far lacking, as is any evidence that the president violated the law.
Ironically enough, McCarthy’s announcement came months after the initial Republican investigations failed to find any criminal activity by the president. There is no evidence remotely comparable to the evidence that spurred inquiries against Clinton or Trump.
To these facts, Republicans might respond, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” They would point to statements such as Hunter’s apparent assertion in a text message to his daughter that half his money goes to his father. They’d note that Joe Biden falsely denied that Hunter had business dealings in China. They’d point to federal whistle-blowers who claim that they faced obstacles in their investigation of Hunter. Some Republicans are pointing all the way back to the long-debunked claim that Joe Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin in part because the Ukrainian energy company Burisma was paying Hunter a lavish monthly consulting fee. (In reality, firing Shokin was a priority for both the Obama administration and its Western allies, and they wanted him terminated because he was ineffective at combating corruption, not because he was diligently pursuing Burisma.)
It’s also worth mentioning here the sheer extent of Republican hypocrisy. The deep concern that Joe Biden might have profited from his position sounds almost comical after the G.O.P. has spent years trying to divert Americans’ attention from the blatant way that the Trump administration steered federal dollars into Trump properties during his presidency. And if we’re talking about the sleaziness of presidential family members profiting from their access to power, then Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump — who, unlike Hunter, worked in the administration — have benefited to exponentially greater degrees from Saudi Arabian and Chinese largess.
And what to make of the idea that the House can’t properly investigate the president’s finances in the absence of an impeachment inquiry? “That’s what the inquiry is for,” Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, told CNN’s Kaitlin Collins in an interview before McCarthy’s announcement, “to get more evidence.”
But while an impeachment inquiry arguably expands the House’s subpoena power, the House still possesses broad investigatory authority even in the absence of such an inquiry. Late last year, for example, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s effort to prevent the House from obtaining his tax returns. The House was seeking Trump’s financial information as part of its legislative oversight role.
There is a colloquial legal term for McCarthy’s approach: It’s a fishing expedition. He’s unilaterally opening a rare inquiry into a sitting president not because of the evidence that does exist but rather because of the evidence Republicans believe might exist. This is a remarkable expansion of the House’s conception of its role in impeachment, one that potentially places every future president in jeopardy whenever the House is controlled by the opposing party.
To understand why this is all happening, it’s necessary to understand the almost mystical importance that Hunter Biden has assumed for parts of the right. He is the focus of obsessive coverage in right-wing media. In this world, the tech companies’ temporary suppression of the contents of his laptop cost Trump the election. The Biden family, in their minds, is a virtual criminal syndicate, guilty of far more than the sadly standard, sleazy profiteering that we’ve seen from other political families and hangers-on.
Moreover, McCarthy clings to power in part because his narrow majority depends on the support of far-right firebrands such as Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, who continually threaten his speakership unless he complies with their demands. Impeaching Biden is such a core element of right-wing activism that two prominent House Republicans, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, recently got into a public spat after Greene accused Boebert of copying her proposed articles of impeachment against Biden.
Finally, it’s difficult to exaggerate the degree to which claims of Democratic corruption justify continued Republican support for Trump. This is how people who otherwise claim to value integrity reduce themselves to Trump sycophants. If everyone does it — if Joe Biden is as corrupt as or worse than Trump and is a Democrat in the bargain — then why not back the man they feel at least fights the right enemies and advances the right causes?
I do not write this piece to vouch for Joe Biden’s integrity or to defend any aspect of Hunter Biden’s conduct or career. If solid evidence of profound misconduct did exist — equivalent to proof of Clinton’s false statements under oath, Trump’s quid pro quo phone call with Zelensky or Trump’s riot — then opening impeachment proceedings would be an entirely proper response. But an impeachment inquiry in the absence of such evidence is an abuse of the House’s power, one that represents yet another dangerous escalation of American political combat.
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