Listen closely from the nondescript hallways outside of Rep. James Comer’s Capitol Hill office and you may just be able to hear the sound of knives being sharpened.
With a GOP takeover of the House looking likely this November, the Kentucky Republican and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee is poised to become the new Congress’s most prominent investigator. And the first course the 50-year-old farmer is set to serve to an expectant GOP base, hungry for political revenge? An investigation into Hunter Biden.
But Comer insists he wants to do more than just probe the President’s son; he claims he wants to change the public perception of the Republican fixation with him. In a recent interview with TIME, he spoke of his frustration with some of his fellow Republicans and conservative media figures who have focused obsessively on sordid details from the younger Biden’s personal life, such as a leaked video of him appearing to smoke crack with a prostitute.
“I think that’s very counter to a credible investigation,” Comer says. “I don’t care anything about that.” Instead, he vowed to conduct a sober investigation if he assumes the committee’s gavel, leaving aside the more salacious aspects of Biden’s history that dominate right-wing talk shows.
Yet only a few days later, he did precisely the opposite.
Appearing on Fox News late last month, Comer suggested breathlessly that the younger Biden was having an affair with his assistant, citing an unnamed source. “I googled a picture of his assistant. She’s a very attractive girl, so I started looking even more,” he said, adding, “According to the whistleblower, they were more than just business associates, if you know what I mean.”
The blunt hypocrisy exposes a reality of what’s at stake for Democrats in the November elections. If Republicans win control of the House, they intend to ramp up efforts to paint Hunter Biden as a national security threat who has corrupted his father, using official committee investigations to present a degree of seriousness to what has often been an unserious endeavor.
Sitting inside his office—with a wall featuring a Kentucky-shaped fixture holding bottles of bourbon distilled in his state—Comer tells me of his plans to probe Hunter Biden’s business dealings and bank records. He stressed that the goal would be to find evidence connecting Hunter Biden’s activities to his father. Ultimately, Comer aims to build a case against the Biden presidency.
“We’re not investigating Hunter Biden for political reasons,” Comer says. “We’re investigating Hunter Biden because we believe he’s a national security threat, who we fear has compromised Joe Biden.” He adds, “The Hunter Biden investigation is slowly becoming the Joe Biden investigation.”
House Republicans are signaling plans to launch a wave of investigations if they take over the chamber, with Comer at the center of much of it. The Oversight panel is one of the only committees with the authority to issue subpoenas without the approval of the minority members.
“If we don’t engage in impeachment inquiries to get the documents and the testimony and the information that we need, then I believe that our voters will feel betrayed,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, recently told a conservative news channel. “That’s why it should be investigations first, and policy, bill-making to support the lobbyists and the PACs as a far, far diminished priority.”
Along with hearings on Hunter Biden, Comer also wants to hold hearings focused on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and what he claims to be the Biden administration’s mismanagement of the southern border. “We’ve got issues with just about every cabinet,” he says.
The Oversight Committee’s current chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, dismissed Comer’s plans for the committee as a political hit job masquerading as an investigation.
“Rather than join Democrats in making progress for the American people, Republicans are promoting a so-called investigative agenda that appears to be aimed at riling up their base and rehashing tired talking points from Donald Trump’s failed 2020 campaign,” Maloney said in a statement to TIME.
Comer has been in Congress for six years. He was first elected to the House in 2016 after serving as Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner, and has been the top Republican on the Oversight Committee since last year. He is expected to easily win re-election against a Democratic challenger in his solidly Republican district, allowing him to focus most of his energy on preparing for a potential GOP majority next year.
The White House declined to comment for this story. President Biden recently told 60 Minutes that his son’s troubles had not influenced his policies in any way. “I love my son, number one. He fought an addiction problem, he overcame it, he wrote about it,” Biden said. “There’s not a single thing that I’ve observed at all that would affect me or the United States, relative to my son Hunter.”
Hunter Biden became the subject of national scrutiny in 2019 ahead of the presidential election, when Republicans intensified their criticism of his stint on the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma five years earlier. The firm had paid him a monthly salary of $50,000 at the same time his father was vice president and tasked with running the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy.
The revelation spawned a web of conspiracy theories alleging that Biden had been compromised by the activities of his son. The allegations were part of an attempt to tarnish Biden’s reputation ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but a Senate investigation led by Republicans found no evidence of wrongdoing by the elder Biden in the matter while he was vice president.
Over time, more revelations about Hunter Biden’s activities came to light. The GOP’s preoccupation with Hunter Biden reached new heights in the fall of 2020, when the FBI seized a laptop that he had left at a Delaware computer repair shop. A copy of the laptop’s hard drive was leaked to the conservative New York Post by the Trump campaign weeks before the presidential election.
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post later verified the laptop’s existence, including evidence of payments Hunter Biden received from a Chinese-financed consulting group. Federal officials have also confirmed that Hunter Biden is the focus of an ongoing investigation being run out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware involving alleged tax violations.
Comer confirmed to TIME that he has a copy of Hunter Biden’s hard drive and plans to use it as a centerpiece in his investigation. He would not say how, exactly, he obtained the hard drive, only that it came from a confidential source. “We’re working with whistleblowers,” he says.
Comer says that the investigation will partly focus on a 2017 email allegedly found on the laptop that he claims proves Joe Biden knew about Hunter Biden’s business dealings with a Chinese company, which Comer argues has corrupted the President’s policy choices while in office. The inquiry would also examine a number of Hunter Biden’s financial transactions that, Comer says, triggered roughly 150 suspicious activity reports (SARs) from multiple American banks, a finding that was first included in a 2020 report from Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Comer accuses the Treasury Department of refusing to provide him with those reports, even though, he claims, any member of Congress has had the authority to access such reports since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mike Gwin, a deputy assistant secretary for the Treasury Department, did not directly address Comer’s accusation, but told TIME that Treasury provides those reports to members of Congress “in a manner that enables robust oversight and that is consistent with how other sensitive law enforcement information is often produced.”
“It is not a political process,” Gwin adds. “Since the beginning of this administration, Treasury has made SARs available in response to authorized committee requests and continues to engage on the process with any individual members seeking information.”
Benghazi and Mar-a-Lago
In the meantime, Comer says he’s been preoccupied with the previous House Oversight chairs who have taken up the most pages in the history books, who he says he wants to emulate for their efficacy.
“I think Henry Waxman was a pretty effective Oversight chair,” he says. “I’m a student of history. Waxman had some pretty effective high-profile hearings with the Big Tobacco companies.” Waxman, a California Democrat who was Oversight chair from 2007 to 2009 and who retired from Congress in 2015, held a series of hearings to warn Americans about the dangers of smoking, which led to the passage of landmark legislation that allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry.
At the same time, Comer says he doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of less effective Oversight heads. He’s reluctant to openly criticize his fellow Republicans but suggests he doesn’t want a repeat of one of the last investigations a House Republican majority undertook— the lengthy and costly probe into a 2012 terrorist attack against the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
The findings ultimately led to nothing criminal and were criticized by Democrats and others as a fishing expedition intended to inflict reputational damage on Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, ahead of her anticipated 2016 presidential run. (In 2015, when Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, was in line to replace Speaker John Boehner, who was retiring, McCarthy made something of a faux pas by explicitly saying that damaging Clinton was the aim of the committee. The gaffe helped lead to Paul Ryan’s election as speaker instead.) “I don’t want to be critical,” Comer says of House Republicans’ Benghazi investigation. “I wasn’t in Congress. I don’t know what the objective was.”
Yet in the view of Democrats, and even some Republicans, Comer’s plan to direct an untold amount of government funds and resources toward an investigation of the current President’s son amounts to pursuing a sprawling Benghazi-like inquiry and expecting a different result.
Oversight is not likely to be the only House committee to launch high-profile investigations next year if Republicans control the chamber. Republicans have also signaled possible new inquiries into the Capitol Police’s response to the Jan. 6 attack, and into the FBI over its decision to execute a search warrant on former President Donald Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago, Fla.
Neither investigation would happen at Oversight, Comer says, as other committees have jurisdiction over those agencies. But his panel does have jurisdiction over the National Archives, and he says he may look into their role in the Mar-a-Lago search, which Attorney General Merrick Garland signed off on because Trump was hoarding hundreds of pages of classified documents he had taken from the White House. “There’s so much going on right now,” Comer says. “The Democrats have requested to know exactly what was in those boxes. I’m anxious to see what was in those boxes. So we’ll go from there.”
—WITH REPORTING BY BRIAN BENNETT
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