December 13, 2023

The GOP’s Ruling Mantra: When You Can’t Govern, Attack

Republicans are launching an impeachment inquiry against President Biden to distract voters from their abysmal congressional record.

Chris Lehmann

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) looks on during a press conference on House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden at the US Capitol on November 29, 2023.

(Francis Chung / Politico / AP Images)

As the 118th Congress winds down its first session, the national legislature is likely to leave a vast trove of unfinished business behind it. A deal to link supplemental military outlays for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan to new border crackdowns has stalled in the Senate, and members of the chamber are already leaving town. After two successive deals to keep the government running, the fate of the federal budget—now parceled out in two staggered legislative packages, scheduled for votes in January and February—still awaits a resolution. The antigovernment Freedom Caucus and its allies are already planning to upend Speaker Mike Johnson’s latest deadline-extending contrivance.

So it’s perversely fitting that the House of Representatives, which sacrificed three weeks of lawmaking time to a search for a new speaker after that hard-right faction of the GOP majority defenestrated Kevin McCarthy for making the first budget deal, is spending the last days of this session lining up votes to launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden. The all-purpose mantra of the Trumpified GOP, after all, is: When you can’t govern, attack.

The legal brief against Biden’s alleged high crimes and misdemeanors that leading House inquisitors like oversight chieftain James Comer of Kentucky and Judiciary head Jim Jordan of Ohio have tried to piece together over the past year and half is little more than Fox News hand-waving. Sustained scrutiny of Hunter Biden’s corrupt business dealings have turned up no evidence that Biden père committed any crime, despite the breathless talk of foreign cash coursing through “the Biden crime family” and yet more lurid displays of the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. What’s more, even if shady facts about the president’s finances had come to light during these attention-grabbing hearings, the awkward fact remains that, during the period in question, Joe Biden was not holding public office. The articles of impeachment clearly lay out the conditions for prospective removal of a president as a result of the abuse of executive powers. If this fanciful version of impeachment were to stand, then a reelected Donald Trump could be hauled up on charges stemming from his sexual assault of Jean Carroll and his payoff of Stormy Daniels—acts that preceded his term in office and carry a good deal more moral and legal stigma than parental car loans. That’s why Johnson, a constitutional lawyer, announced in one of his first conference meetings as speaker that a Biden impeachment wouldn’t be a priority on his watch.

But that, of course, was last month. As Johnson’s substantive agenda has unraveled, he’s gone ahead and lined up a floor vote on Biden impeachment proceedings, and House leaders have set about whipping votes. Nebraska GOP Representative Don Bacon who’d formerly opposed a formal impeachment vote, now supports it, even though he concedes that there’s no evidence that the president is guilty of criminal wrongdoing. The wan rationale Bacon and other recent converts offer for their move into the Yes column is that the White House didn’t comply with every request from Comer, Jordan, and other committee heads—another howler, given the Trump administration’s consistent AWOL status on congressional subpoenas and impeachment probes (as well as Jordan’s own defiance of his subpoena to testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol).

In other words, the pending impeachment vote is a parody of the traditional legal oversight of executive power. It has nothing to do with moral consistency or coherent legal precedent. “This impeachment attempt is baffling,” Praveen Fernandes, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Accountability, said. “Despite months of House hearings, the proponents of impeaching President Biden haven’t produced a shred of direct evidence that he did anything legally wrong, let alone anything that meets the high crimes and misdemeanors standard articulated in the Constitution. And this paucity of evidence has reportedly been acknowledged by Speaker Johnson in his communications with his own caucus.”

In lieu of securing anything so quaint and outmoded as justice, the clamor for Biden’s impeachment is another bid to expand the ever-renewable narrative of right-wing victimology. The determination to decry world-historic crimes at the center of the seedy and drug-addled failson career of Hunter Biden is, first and foremost, a tactical inversion of the case behind the successful 2019 impeachment of Trump, who attempted to blackmail Ukrainian Voldymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into… the corrupt business dealings of Hunter Biden.

It’s crucial to underline that Trump’s original ask was not to jump-start an actual investigation of Hunter Biden—it was merely to announce that such a proceeding was in the works. For political purposes, that was all Trump required—and now the GOP House conference is stepping in to supply the Potemkin Hunter Biden–centric probe that Zelensky didn’t deliver.

And what’s unnerving is that the jittery suppositions of Messrs. Comer, Jordan et al. already seem to be destabilizing Biden’s image in exactly the way that Trump was hoping a Ukraine probe would during the 2020 election cycle. A recent Wall Street Journal poll not only shows Trump leading Biden by double digits on issues like the economy, the Gaza War, and Ukraine; it also has Biden up by astonishingly modest margins on the metrics of corruption and democracy-promotion that proved critical in the close 2020 showdown between the same candidates. Biden leads by just one point on the question of which candidate would better protect democracy, and trails Trump, who is facing grave legal charges in multiple jurisdictions, on the “is corrupt” metric by just seven points. Biden is also up by just 10 points on the “is honest” question, which might sound like a comfortable margin, until you recall that lying to Trump is tantamount to breathing for the rest of us.

To be sure, this is but one early poll, administered by a right-wing, Murdoch-owned news organization. Yet it still serves to stress why Mike Johnson executed such an abrupt about-face on the question of initiating a formal Biden impeachment probe: He already presides over a razor-thin five-vote House majority, and is looking at a national election in less than a year in which GOP House candidates in blue or purple districts will be left with little more to run on than the GOP conference’s recent acts of ideological fratricide. Impeachment not only would unleash a fresh round of news cycles distracting voters from the Republicans’ abysmal legislative record; it could also help nail down the electorate’s standoffish view of Biden’s character as a permanent liability that could produce gains for down-ticket Republicans.

It’s the same political logic that prompted Johnson, a hard-core election denier and Christian nationalist, to release security footage of the January 6 insurrection. This was another work of agitprop jujitsu, intended to reinforce the bogus narrative that the MAGA crowds storming the Capitol and wreaking violent mayhem were simply patriots keen to preserve election integrity—a messaging ploy that was instantly undercut when Johnson decided to blur out the faces of insurrectionists in order to prevent them from being charged and prosecuted. The maneuvering here was identical to Johnson’s reversal on the impeachment question—the point is to use political authority to reinforce the core tropes of right-wing victimhood and deep-state perfidy. It’s the opposite of governing in the public interest—but all that Mike Johnson, James Comer, and Jim Jordan care about is seizing more power.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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