Politics / September 29, 2023

This Might Be the Most Cringeworthy
“Impeachment” Inquiry in US History

The GOP investigation into Joe Biden is so weak that even its own witnesses were skeptical. Awkward!

John Nichols
Ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., cites quotes by Republican members as Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., looks on, during the House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing titled "The Basis for an Impeachment Inquiry of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.," in Rayburn Building on Thursday, September 28, 2023.

Ranking member Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) cites quotes by Republican members as Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) looks on, during the House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing titled “The Basis for an Impeachment Inquiry of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.,” on Thursday, September 28, 2023.

(Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

I wrote a history of the impeachment power and I think of myself as someone who is reasonably familiar with the uses and abuses of the American experiment’s ultimate accountability tool. With that in mind, I feel comfortable suggesting that Thursday’s House Oversight Committee hearing on the desperate scheme by congressional Republicans to take down Joe Biden ranks as the most cringeworthy opening of a presidential impeachment inquiry in American history.

There’s plenty of competition, to be sure. Most impeachment initiatives—even those that aren’t transparently frivolous—never get off the ground because they are unfocused or ill-timed, like the 1932 attempt to try Herbert Hoover for mangling responses to the Great Depression, or the 1951 proposal to sanction Harry Truman for firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And some investigations that do gain traction, like the salacious inquiry into Bill Clinton’s behavior in the 1990s, wind up backfiring on the impeachers.

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But what happened at Thursday’s first public hearing on the Biden impeachment inquiry was absurd even by the standards of the current US Congress. Oversight Committee chair James Comer (R-Ky.) presided over a session that went from bad to worse for the Republican efforts to smear the name of a president that they clearly don’t like but have struggled to confront with credible evidence of wrongdoing.

How far are House Republicans from making a case for impeachment? Some of the most damning testimony in the hearing came from the “friendly” witnesses that Comer called to jump-start the process.

Opening panels like the one Comer and his team assembled are supposed to inspire confidence in the impeachment process. Instead, forensic accountant Bruce Dubinsky, a GOP invitee, suggested that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the president did anything that met the corruption standard that might reasonably be demanded to identify malfeasance. “I am not here today to even suggest that there was corruption, fraud or wrongdoing,” testified Dubinsky. “More information needs to be gathered before I can make such an assessment.”

Wince.

Then law professor Jonathan Turley, a frequent Republican witness at past impeachment sessions, threw another bucket of water on the GOP effort to link Biden to the business dealings of his scandal-plagued son, Hunter.

“I do not believe that the current evidence would support articles of impeachment,” said Turley.

Flinch.

Even a Republican committee member, Wisconsin Representative Glenn Grothman, admitted in his tortured opening statement that “We have all kinds of smoke, maybe no fire.

Cringe.

In fairness, both Dubinsky and Turley sought to identify the committee’s inquiry as an attempt to discover evidence of wrongdoing, with Turley arguing that “the House has passed the threshold for an impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Biden.”

But, historically, that threshold has been associated with actual evidence of what could convincingly be described as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as opposed to the hope that something might turn up.

There’s not much doubt that Hunter Biden’s business dealings have embarrassed his father, as many presidential family members have embarrassed past commanders in chief. But the inability of President Biden’s critics to connect him to his son’s misdeeds at a sufficient level that would impress the committee majority’s own witnesses lends credence to complaints that Thursday’s high-profile hearing—initiated on the eve of a government shutdown—was the latest stumble in what House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) describes as “an illegitimate impeachment inquiry. Period. Full stop.” As Jeffrey Robbins, the former chief counsel for the minority of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, explained Thursday in an interview with ABC News, the “inauspicious” opening for the proceedings “really does create the impression that this is throwing spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it will stick.”

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Impeachment inquiries are supposed to be serious endeavors, whatever you think of the president being investigated. But the obviously slapdash nature of the Biden inquiry makes it look like an unthinking political gambit—or, worse yet, a punch line for a bad joke about the inability of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s House Republican Caucus to get its act together.

McCarthy is the worst actor in this tawdry show. As the speaker, he has considerable sway over how the chamber handles its constitutionally appointed task of initiating impeachments. Until recently, McCarthy recognized a duty to secure a vote by a majority of House members to launch an inquiry, saying that it was vital that the process be launched via “a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person.”

Just days after he spoke those words, one person unilaterally ordered the current inquiry: Kevin McCarthy.

This flip-flopping, along with the bumbling approach of McCarthy’s hapless lieutenants during Thursday’s session, put the whole mangled process in the crosshairs of Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, the former constitutional law professor who now serves as the Oversight Committee’s ranking member.

Comparing McCarthy and his colleagues with “flying monkeys on a mission for the Wicked Witch of the West,” Raskin explained that the speaker was, very obviously, doing the bidding of twice-impeached former president Donald Trump. “Speaker McCarthy’s invertebrate appeasement of the most fanatical elements of his conference now threatens the well-being of every American,” he said in reference to an evidence-free impeachment inquiry that is being pursued on the eve of a government shutdown. “[The] Constitution is irrelevant to them. What counts is what Donald Trump wants.”

Dismissing Thursday’s hearing as a travesty, Raskin said of the Republicans who were conducting the session, “They don’t have a shred of evidence against President Biden. Do you think I’m being harsh? Here’s what some Republicans had to say over the last week about the actions of the Republicans.”

Democratic aides then displayed placards featuring quotes from House Republicans, including Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who recently wrote,

The GOP’s charge against Biden is that he personally benefited from his son’s deplorable business exploits around the globe. Without doubt, Hunter Biden’s shady business deals undermined America’s image and our anti-corruption goals, and his conduct was thoroughly reprehensible. What’s missing, despite years of investigation, is the smoking gun that connects Joe Biden to his ne’er-do-well son’s corruption.

Buck is no apologist for the Bidens. He’s a very conservative Republican. But he’s emerged of late as a member of the party’s rapidly dwindling reality-based wing. So it matters when Buck says, “Republicans in the House who are itching for an impeachment are relying on an imagined history… But impeachment is a serious matter and should have a foundation in rock-solid facts.”

That, as the Oversight Committee’s hearing so aptly and amply illustrated, is not the case. That is also why committee member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), after noting the lack of a House vote to initiate the inquiry and the absence of fact witnesses at Thursday’s session, announced, with appropriate indignation, “This is an embarrassment—an embarrassment to the time and people of this country.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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