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As House Republicans on Wednesday hosted their first hearing of an impeachment inquiry nominally against Joe Biden, it was obvious pretty quickly that their program was designed to agitate partisans, not persuade Americans. In fact, House Oversight Chairman James Comer all but confirmed as much early during a session that alternatively painted the Bidens as the new Gambino crime family, or as hapless climbers who couldn’t corral the problem child son who wanted to wring every last drop of privilege from his cashmere scarf.
“We want to present evidence,” Comer said as the day began.
Shot back Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who was a leading voice during both of the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump: “What evidence? There is no evidence. There are no facts.”
Then, perhaps not fully appreciating that he was conceding that the facts mattered less than their packaging, Comer responded, “Just sit back and let the American people see the hearing.”
Welcome to at least the next year of Congress, where how things look matter more than what they are. Sure, we are mere hours away from a total government shutdown come Saturday night. Not one of the 12 funding bills needed to keep essential services up and running has cleared Congress, House Republicans’ plans are D.O.A. in the Senate, and the Senate’s stopgap compromise is as moribund in the all-or-nothing House. But rather than try to grind out a deal, House Republicans seem happy to let the government grind to a halt as they churn the Biden family’s perceived sins into froth that would distract from the GOP’s role in crashing the appropriations process into smithereens.
To be clear, Hunter Biden may well have been involved in some dodgy deals that bordered on at least perceived criminality. Certainly there were some serious lapses in judgment, as he brazenly banked on his family’s name and connections. And yet, House Republicans seem determined to oversell the facts as they know them, to the point that even some members of their own party are beginning to doubt if the president did anything wrong.
The first hearing included no new evidence, as even the organizers conceded would be the case before it began. Instead, the day was a packaged version of reality in which uncertain timelines, blurred details, and suggestive language stood in place of the hard facts, footnotes, and double-confirmations that were the hallmark of both impeachments of Donald Trump. Complicated organizational charts made things look scary, and context-free text messages that may turn out to be references to inside jokes were presented as proof of RICO-worthy corruption rings.
Even the three witnesses invited by the Republican majority seemed dubious that the Oversight team had the goods just yet to make any moves against Biden. “In fact, I do not believe that the current evidence would support articles of impeachment. That is something an inquiry has to establish,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said.
Bruce Dubinsky, a forensic accountant and Republican witness, urged caution for moving forward based on the little that is known now: “The American people deserve to know the truth. The rigor and discipline of a well-planned and -executed investigation should not be subverted by political motivations or aspiration. To do so would critically undermine the integrity of any such investigation and any conclusions reached.”
Democrats could do little to conceal their contempt for the moment. “This is not a serious inquiry. This is not a serious hearing. The witnesses here don’t even think there’s enough evidence to impeach. Their own members don’t even believe there’s enough evidence to impeach,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico. “This is a campaign strategy. … We see the long arm—the little hands—of Mr. Donald Trump, whose fingerprints are all over this hearing and this sham impeachment.”
Sham or not, it’s here. And Republicans are going to use it to hammer Biden and fellow Democrats heading into a contentious and uncertain election year.
Democrats did their best to dispel the implications of nefarious conduct. For instance, when confronted with one chart that Hunter Biden had 20-plus shell companies involved in one investment effort, Rep. Jimmy Gomez of California reminded his colleagues that Trump used between 517 and 543 companies to do business and to shield liabilities. “Any time they say The Biden Family, they’re actually saying Hunter Biden. Because there hasn’t been a connection between Joe Biden and these companies,” said Gomez, who has reviewed Trump’s tax returns.
Republicans seemed to enjoy the day as a payback of sorts for two impeachments against Trump, who still controls vast parts of the GOP base. “I love the fact that Trump lives rent-free in Democrats’ heads every day. That is a beautiful thing,” said Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich. Stil, owning the libs isn’t a reason to keep this fishing expedition going, especially not with a fragile Republican majority getting harder to take seriously as a sideshow overtakes a funding crisis.
Maybe House Republicans will develop actual evidence going forward. After all, during the Bill Clinton impeachment, House Republicans didn’t do much original research of their own until a special counsel finished its work. Only with Ken Starr’s report in hand did the House vote to start a probe. Unlike then, House Republicans are moving ahead anyway—without a vote of the full House but with the directive from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy—before a special counsel probe of Hunter is finished. (Joe Biden is not a suspect in any of the criminal cases facing Hunter.)
But to this point, the flesh seems pretty flimsy.
“These witnesses are not giving any answers. They’re just asking more questions,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat. “Mr. Turley is stopping here on the way to his next Fox News hit.” Turley is a mainstay on the conservative network.
Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Texas asked the Democratic witness Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, how much of the conversation had been rooted in hypotheticals that were not proven. By Gerhardt’s tally, at least 35 such moments had come through. “Honestly, if they were to continue to say if or Hunter, if we were playing a drinking game, I would be drunk by now,” Crockett said. “They have not talked about the subject of this, which would be the president.”
There was no denying, however, that the Republican gruel is thin.
“Any serious impeachment investigation or inquiry relies on first-hand sworn testimony of witnesses to high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “Today, the Republican majority has called three witnesses to make their case.” She then asked each witness a version of the same question: “Are you presenting any first-hand witness account of crimes committed by the President of the United States.”
The answer, of course, was negative.
If and when anyone answers in the affirmative, these sessions are going to feed Republican distrust of Biden and his family. That alone, however, is not enough to make Hunter Biden’s shadiness criminal.
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