• Politics
  • Congress

Facing Pressure from Hard Right, McCarthy Orders Biden Impeachment Inquiry

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Under mounting pressure from hard-right lawmakers, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday finally gave them what they wanted, formally opening an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden over his family’s business dealings, despite a lack of evidence showing Biden profited from them.

The surprise move by McCarthy, who had previously signaled that he would put the issue up to a vote of the full House, might have been an act of self-preservation more than anything else; some of the most influential Trump-allied members of his own caucus were threatening to try to oust him as Speaker. But it amounts to a significant escalation of an investigation that started in January, soon after Republicans assumed a slim House majority, and is opposed by nearly 20 House Republicans and other prominent conservatives.

The inquiry will center on whether Biden played a role in, or financially benefited from, his son Hunter Biden’s overseas business affairs, McCarthy announced at the Capitol on Tuesday. It will also focus on whether other members of the Biden family illicitly used their proximity to power to enrich themselves, a source familiar with the matter tells TIME. The House Oversight Committee’s months-long investigation has yet to find evidence that the President profited from his wayward son’s business dealings, leading even some GOP legislators to openly dismiss a full-blown impeachment inquiry as politically motivated. Others, such as the firebrand Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green, say that enough information has been uncovered to warrant deeper scrutiny. 

In his Tuesday press conference, McCarthy said that the House Oversight probe, led by Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, has already unearthed a “culture of corruption” around the Biden family, as he accused the President of lying about his knowledge of his son’s activities. “These are allegations of abuse of power, obstruction, and corruption, and warrant further investigation by the House of Representatives,” McCarthy said. “That’s why today I am directing our House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.”

Ian Sams, a White House spokesperson, called the impeachment inquiry “extreme politics at its worst,” pointing to Republicans like Colorado Congressman Ken Buck who have publicly called out their own colleagues for exploiting the specter of impeachment to cripple Biden’s reelection chances. “House Republicans have been investigating the President for 9 months, and they’ve turned up no evidence of wrongdoing,” Sams wrote in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “His own GOP members have said so. He vowed to hold a vote to open impeachment, now he flip flopped because he doesn’t have support.”

Officials at the White House, suspecting an inquiry was inevitable, have already ramped up a war room of lawyers, legislative aides, and communications staffers to battle against it, NBC News reported last week. House Democrats have also been preparing their defense of the President, releasing a 14-page memo on Monday detailing what they called the “overwhelming failure” of the GOP investigation into Biden. “Chairman Comer’s investigation has conclusively disproven the Republican allegations against President Biden,” wrote Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. 

Should House Republicans impeach Biden, a Senate trial would likely unfold as former President Donald Trump is facing criminal prosecutions in as many as four separate venues. It may even take place at the same time Trump is on trial for one or more of those charges. 

But any impeachment effort is likely dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday called the impeachment inquiry "absurd," and accused House Republicans of embarking on a partisan witch hunt against the President. "I have sympathy with Speaker McCarthy," Schumer said. "He's in a difficult position. But sometimes you got to tell these people who are way off the deep end, who have no interest in helping the American people, who just want to pursue their own witch hunts—that they can't go forward.”

Since America’s founding, the House has impeached only three presidents: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Trump, who was impeached twice. In all four cases, a subsequent Senate trial failed to draw enough votes to convict the president in question and remove them from office. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned amid an impeachment inquiry when members of his own party had finally turned against him.

In making his announcement on Tuesday, McCarthy backtracked on a previous commitment to require a full House vote before opening an impeachment inquiry—a significant about-face and change in strategy. In 2019, McCarthy criticized then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for opening the first impeachment inquiry into Trump without a full House vote. When asked on Tuesday why he changed course, McCarthy told reporters that his predecessor “changed the rules of the House” and that he’s “just following through.”

A formal impeachment inquiry provides Congress with its apex of power, giving the legislative body more discretion to dig into Biden’s family finances. Investigators could, for example, issue subpoenas for the bank records of Biden and his relatives. The mechanism could also put Biden in a bind should he refuse to comply with any of the subpoenas, according to Michael Conway, an attorney who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 impeachment into Nixon. If Biden doesn’t comply with the inquiry, that in itself is an impeachable offense. Indeed, one of the three articles of impeachment considered against Nixon was for defying the inquiry, which sought to obtain his infamous White House tape recordings. 

The House inquiry into Biden comes at a sensitive time for McCarthy, who has been trying to appease right-wing lawmakers threatening to take away his Speaker’s gavel while also struggling to pass a spending bill needed to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month. But the move to endorse an impeachment inquiry did not quell GOP divisions. Shortly after McCarthy’s announcement, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, escalated his threats to McCarthy’s Speakership, accusing him of being “out of compliance” with deals Republicans made at the beginning of the year during his marathon leadership race.

Gaetz added that if McCarthy were “serious about holding the Biden crime family accountable, we wouldn’t have some rushed, rattled statement; we would have a subpoena strategy that would reflect seriousness.”

For weeks, McCarthy had been signaling that he wanted to pursue an impeachment inquiry of Biden, but lacked the votes in the narrowly divided House, as nearly 20 Republicans said that the congressional investigations had thus far failed to prove that Biden committed a high crime or misdemeanor. Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, on Tuesday described McCarthy's effort as an "impeachment-first, reason-second process based on repackaged, inaccurate conspiracies."

The inquiry will be led by three House Republican chairs: Comer, Jim Jordan with the Judiciary Committee, and Jason Smith with the Ways and Means Committee. Amid the efforts to avoid a government shutdown, it was not clear Tuesday how quickly the inquiry would move forward. Those leading the effort are holding their cards close to their vest. “We are committed to getting the answers for the American public—nothing more, nothing less," McCarthy said. "We will go wherever the evidence takes us.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com