The Actual Danger of McCarthy’s Impeachment Gambit Against Biden

Comer, Steube, and McCarthy Photoshopped side by side, the former two speaking and the latter grimacing with his lips tight.
GOP Reps. James Comer and Greg Steube, and the speaker. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images, and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Republicans have threatened to impeach President Joe Biden so many times that it’s become natural to tune out every new attempt. The calls started before his presidency even began, when right-wingers lent credence to the false narrative that Biden had “stolen” the 2020 election. Since then, Republicans have called for a Biden impeachment over—among other things—immigration policies; military decisions; COVID-related restrictions and measures; classified documents; and accusations of abusing the FBI and other agencies for Biden’s own political ends. More than a dozen impeachment resolutions have been introduced in the House. (Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has sponsored a good number of them.) All have been referred to a committee without any expectation of further action.

But this time is different. On Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced that he was directing House committees to investigate Joe Biden as part of a formal impeachment inquiry.

“House Republicans have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct,” McCarthy told reporters. “Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.” He has directed the Oversight, Judiciary, and Ways and Means committees to look for evidence of corruption.

So why move toward impeachment now? There’s an obvious political motivation: McCarthy is attempting to fend off an attack from the right flank of his party. The Freedom Caucus wants to shut down the government, and McCarthy is hoping he can tempt it to keep the government running with an impeachment inquiry. Also, the GOP more generally is trying to damage Biden’s reputation ahead of the 2024 election.

There is no evidence of a high crime or misdemeanor; instead, Republicans are desperately hoping that an impeachment inquiry will turn something up. In 2019, after Nancy Pelosi announced she was launching an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, McCarthy slammed her for doing so unilaterally, without holding a vote. He said as recently as Sept. 1 that he would launch an impeachment inquiry himself through a vote. Now he’s not doing that, presumably because he doesn’t have the votes.

To be abundantly clear: There’s no evidence of corrupt behavior by Biden. But for Republicans, the mere opportunity to put Biden in the same breath as lawbreaking is grounds to move forward. And that mere possibility exists because of the shady behavior of the president’s son Hunter Biden.

For years now, conservatives have fixated on the overlap of two events: Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, and Joe Biden’s support as vice president for the ouster of the prosecutor Viktor Shokin, leveraging $1 billion in aid to get that done. (Shokin was thought by many in the international community to be corrupt.) Over the past couple of years, Republicans have sought to prove that Biden was trying to oust Shokin to protect Burisma—possibly because he also had a financial investment in the company.

In July of this year, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley released a much-hyped FBI document that was known, at least among a circle of Fox News viewers and internet sleuths who follow these things religiously, as the FD-1023 form. That form, supplied by an unidentified whistleblower, contained unsubstantiated claims from a confidential informant that Burisma officials had tried to pay the two Bidens $5 million each for their help in ousting Shokin.

That would be huge if it pointed to a bribe that showed foreign companies influencing U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that this claim isn’t new and has never been found to have any merit. In 2020 the Justice Department—still under Trump Attorney General Bill Barr—looked into those claims and failed to find any evidence. The investigation was closed after eight months.

It’s flimsy—especially in terms of a potential impeachment case—but the possibility of the $5 million bribe has consumed parts of the right-wing media sphere. In his time as the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer has repeatedly alluded to proof of corruption stemming, presumably, from the FD-1023 form. In a press conference back in May, Comer claimed he had found evidence of “federal crimes committed,” noting with some sense of drama that whistleblowers “fear for their lives.” In March, he told Fox that there were “whistleblowers” who were “affiliated with what I call the Biden influence peddling all across the globe.” (In a rebuttal letter, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said the two witnesses Comer alluded to had never accused the president of misconduct.)

In June, Comer and Grassley began to amp up the drama again, this time teasing recordings of phone calls, taken by “the foreign national who allegedly bribed Joe and Hunter Biden,” that were “allegedly kept as a sort of insurance policy for the foreign national in case he got into a tight spot.” These phone calls, Comer and Grassley suggested, were referenced in the 1023 form and would back up the “whistleblower’s” claims of bribing the two Bidens. But Comer has admitted he doesn’t know if the calls are legitimate.

The other major material for McCarthy’s probe came in July in the form of testimony from Devon Archer, an associate of Hunter Biden’s. In the testimony, which he gave to the committee, Archer described Hunter as someone who threw around his father’s name for clout, sometimes even falsely taking credit for motivating his father’s visits to Ukraine. According to Archer, it wasn’t just Hunter who benefited from proximity to Joe Biden. Archer believes that Burisma itself survived in part because of its connections to Washington power players because “people would be intimidated to mess with [Burisma],” in reference to investigators. And Archer said President Biden not only knew of Hunter’s business but “met with Hunter’s business partners.”

And most outrageously, as the Republicans see it, Archer claimed that Hunter often called his father during meetings with business associates and put him on speakerphone to prove his own connection to power. He also backed up the claim that the elder Biden had attended dinners with Burisma officials.

But lest Republicans get too excited, Archer also clarified that he had not seen any wrongdoing by President Biden. He refuted the claim about the $5 million bribe and testified that although Hunter Biden sometimes called his father and placed him on speakerphone during meetings with business associates, the conversations were never about business, and the elder Biden never got involved in his son’s deals. The same went for the in-person dinners—no business matters were discussed.

The corruption claims aren’t limited entirely to Burisma matters. McCarthy has speculated that Chinese companies could have tried to influence the elder Biden when he was vice president, through deals with his son. Trump has tried to imply that Biden was being paid off by the Chinese through a University of Pennsylvania center. (The center received no gifts from China.) Republicans have dwelled on a July 2017 WhatsApp message in which Hunter reportedly threatened a Chinese business associate, writing, “I am sitting here with my father and we would like to understand why the commitment made has not been fulfilled.” Hunter Biden’s lawyer has said he was not with his father; there is no evidence President Biden gained anything from the matter being discussed. (The younger Biden was struggling with drug addiction at the time.)

But to Comer and others, the general flow of money to Biden family members or their associates from any international source was inherently suspect. In August, Comer released a memo claiming that the committee had found more than $20 million in payments from “foreign sources” to Biden family members or their associates while Joe Biden was vice president. It didn’t matter, the memo argued, that none of the payments were directly connected to Joe Biden. Under the subhead “President Biden’s Family Is the Vehicle to Receive Bribery Payments,” the memo noted: “Indeed, the law recognizes payments to family members to corruptly influence others can constitute a bribe.” (The Washington Post found that $7 million of that $20 million went to Biden family members and that all of the payments came from real companies, not shell companies, as the memo claimed.)

These ideas of potential corruption from foreign sources will almost certainly form the basis for the impeachment inquiry. But that doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t still bring in more: They may well look into, for example, allegations from two Internal Revenue Service employees that the DOJ interfered with the investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes.

It’s a war of public perception, and Republicans are hoping to gin up enough smoke to signal a fire.

To be sure, Hunter Biden certainly may have committed crimes: He’s nearly admitted to such, agreeing to plead guilty to misdemeanor tax-evasion charges. (That plea deal fell apart; he may still face tax-related charges, as well as a separate gun charge.) But the accusations leveled against his father deal with more speculative matters.

Still, years and years of these vague and sinister-sounding accusations have definitely influenced Americans’ perceptions. A CNN poll found that a majority of Americans believe that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business dealings and that he acted inappropriately with the investigation into his son. In an August Yahoo/YouGov poll, 86 percent of Republicans said they think Hunter “funneled millions of dollars to his father in a long-running scheme to help Joe Biden profit off of his position.”

But McCarthy seems to know he doesn’t have the votes for impeachment: It’s widely believed that he declared the inquiry directly and without a full House vote because he knew he couldn’t get enough members behind it. Some Republicans have openly said they don’t think there’s enough evidence to move forward with the impeachment process.

McCarthy seems to be arguing that they don’t need evidence—that they are already justified, based on the general perception of corruption, in calling upon their power to look into bank records and other documents to root around for problems. (That’s despite the fact that their party has already spent months poring over financial records and communications related to the Bidens and has turned up not much at all.) But it may not matter whether the records turn up a smoking gun: This is a matter of mental associations more than anything else. By this point, Republicans know that they have succeeded in associating Joe Biden with corruption. Evidence isn’t necessary.