For months, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has resisted calls from the hard right to impeach President Joe Biden. In April, he warned against pursuing the President’s removal from office, as none of the Congressional investigations into Biden had revealed that he committed any crimes. There was also McCarthy’s own calculation that such an exercise would backfire. “We’re not going to use it for political purposes,” he said. But last week, McCarthy changed course in response to the inexorable pull of his MAGA flank, a cache of new revelations about Biden’s wayward son Hunter, and the political gravity of Donald Trump.
The California Republican didn’t quite call to impeach Biden, but he escalated that prospect by floating an impeachment inquiry into the President over unproven claims of financial misconduct. “What an impeachment inquiry does, when you vote on the floor, is it gives you the apex of power of Congress,” McCarthy told reporters on Thursday.
The proceedings, which would be the first step before bringing articles of impeachment, could be as fast or as slow as the House GOP would like—meaning it could stretch well into the 2024 campaign season. While the effort is destined to go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it’s a sign that the coming election will be fought beyond the conventional venues of the campaign trail. It will play out in courthouses throughout the country, where former President Donald Trump will defend himself against multiple criminal prosecutions, and the halls of Congress, where Republicans hope to put Biden on trial simultaneously.
That, say Democrats, and some Republicans in private, is the point. Trump and his supporters, they insist, want an answer to the courtroom dramas he will face with the election in full swing, and an impeachment proceeding on the House floor fits the bill. “It's all about protecting Trump and stirring up the waters and blurring the differences between Trump and Biden,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Democratic Senators Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy.
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Republicans argue that McCarthy’s evolution on impeachment was triggered by a set of recent discoveries: two IRS whistleblowers who allege the Department of Justice gave Hunter Biden a sweetheart deal, which subsequently collapsed when it came before a federal judge; news that a Democratic donor who bought an expensive painting from the younger Biden also received a cushy posting from the President; and closed-door testimony expected on Monday from Hunter Biden’s long-time friend Devon Archer, who GOP lawmakers say will corroborate claims that Biden, as vice president, participated in his son’s business dealings. “The evidence and stuff that's come out is what is causing him to change his tune,” a senior Republican House staffer familiar with the matter tells TIME.
Since Republicans took over the House last January, they have conducted myriad probes into Biden’s family and presidency. The confluence of investigations and allegations have created a groundswell among the MAGA base that Biden should face retribution. That hunger has only grown as Trump—who wants to see Biden impeached—has soared in the polls following each indictment, making him the clear frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Now, some of his fiercest allies in Congress are pushing for Biden’s comeuppance. “It must happen,” Republican Rep. Cory Mills of Florida tells TIME. “He’s the most corrupt President in our nation’s history. It’s absolutely warranted.” Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House GOP Conference Chair, told Fox Business on Thursday that she would “absolutely” support an impeachment, saying she’s “in conversations with Speaker McCarthy and all of our members” about it.
The push comes against a backdrop of Trump’s mounting legal woes. He’s facing criminal charges in New York for allegedly falsifying business records to conceal hush-money payments to a porn star. At the same time, he’s under federal indictment for allegedly hoarding national-security secrets and blocking the government’s efforts to reclaim them. Special Counsel Jack Smith added new counts against Trump in the Mar-a-Lago documents case on Thursday, alleging he deleted video evidence to obstruct the investigation. More prosecutions also appear to be in the offing. One is from a separate special counsel investigation by Smith into Trump’s role leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The other is from Fulton County DA Fani Willis, who’s probing Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the state.
But one problem McCarthy faces on the Hill is that he doesn’t have buy-in from his entire conference. “I don't think it’s responsible to talk about impeachment, because we have these ongoing investigations that are gathering material,” Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado tells TIME. “When they gather the material that indicates that there’s an impeachable offense then we should open an inquiry. But at this point in time, it’s premature.”
With Republicans having a slim 222-212 House majority, only a small number of defections could sink the effort. And Buck is not alone. Behind closed doors, some GOP Hill staffers and members worry that impeachment proceedings against Biden could boomerang against them in the next election.
Buck thinks McCarthy’s flirtation with impeachment is due to more than Trump’s grip over the party and Hunter Biden’s misadventures. Last week, Congress left for its August recess without passing crucial appropriations measures to fund the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. When lawmakers return in September, they will need to pass 12 such bills to keep the government funded, or risk a government shutdown on October 1. “This has been done to distract from those appropriations bills and the lack of consensus on those appropriations bills,” he says.
But even if some Republican lawmakers are resistant to impeaching Biden, some Capitol Hill veterans suspect the wrath of Trump and his supporters could change their minds in the coming months. Says Manley: “The blowback from Trump and Trump supporters and the rest of the caucus will be brutal.”
A similar dynamic played out last month, when Republican Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida forced a vote to censure Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who led Trump’s first impeachment and served on the Jan. 6 committee. The first attempt failed after 20 Republicans voted against it. But then, Luna and Trump mobilized a social media backlash. A week later, Luna forced another vote. This time, it was successful. Not a single Republican voted against the measure.
While Schiff became the 25th House member to face such a reprimand and will now be subject to a House Ethics investigation, the ordeal came with some upside for him. His Senate campaign raised $8.1 million afterwards.
It’s a reason why Democrats believe the GOP impeaching Biden could help the President’s reelection campaign. “Impeachment hearings would make for good television. They would make for spectacle,” a senior Democratic Hill staffer tells TIME. “But what we already know is that voters are tired of hyper partisanship.” Moreover, the official adds, Democrats would use the proceedings to try to emphasize a contrast between the parties: “Democrats are here to lower costs and build bridges. Republicans are here to perform political theater.”
Of course, Republicans have only a razor-thin House majority and remain blocked by Biden’s veto power. That leaves them with not much they can do beyond messaging. The question looming over the caucus is whether a Biden impeachment inquiry would amount to a political winner or an election-season misfire.
Democrats are betting it would be the latter. “This is playing into the political circus that helped them lose four years ago and underperform two years ago,” the Hill staffer says. “If you give them enough rope, they’ll hang themselves.”
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