House Speaker Mike Johnson is pursuing an impeachment strategy against President Joe Biden that he once said could cause “irreparable damage” to the country when Democrats sought to oust then-President Donald Trump, according to a CNN KFile review of his past public comments.
Just four years ago, Johnson blasted Democrats for opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump largely along party lines less than a year before the next presidential election — the exact circumstances Johnson finds himself in now.
In radio interviews reviewed by CNN, Johnson criticized Democrats for using what he called “gerrymandered facts” in their 2019 impeachment inquiry for the sole and “predetermined” purpose of impeaching Trump to undermine his political standing. He argued the Democrats’ grievances against Trump should be settled by voters and not through such an extreme remedy as impeachment.
“If you don’t like the president, he goes on a ballot again after four years,” Johnson said in a December 2019 interview. “We have an election in 11 months. Let the people decide this.”
Somewhat prophetically, he warned Democrats that what they were doing was “short-sighted” and said that impeaching Trump opened a “Pandora’s box” in which every opposition party in control of the House could impeach the president, an outcome he asserted the Founding Fathers feared. He also complained that the effort derailed Congress from its real work of legislating.
“What happens a few years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now? You have a Democrat in the White House and you have a Republican majority in the House. Do you think the Republican base in the country is gonna be satisfied…?” Johnson asked in the interview. “They’re gonna demand that they be impeached because you’ve now set the bar so low that we’re going into tribal politics now. I mean, if you think politics were divided before this, heaven help us.”
Now Johnson, as the speaker of the House, seems to have abandoned his previous concerns about impeachment, and — with Republicans in control of the House — has said he fully supports such an inquiry along party lines and so close to a presidential election.
In response to questions from CNN, Johnson’s office said: “The Speaker’s commentary on the House Democrat impeachment effort was true then and is true now. The 2019 impeachment of President Trump remains infamous for using the thinnest evidentiary record and narrowest grounds ever to impeach a President. Today, the House is taking a decidedly different approach. The House will depose witnesses, gather evidence, establish a record, and only present Articles if the evidentiary record supports such action.”
House Republicans have been investigating Biden and his family for months. They are examining possible allegations of bribery, abuse of power and obstruction against the president, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan told reporters last week.
The allegations primarily stem from already discredited claims regarding Biden’s actions in Ukraine, which surfaced during Trump’s initial impeachment proceedings in 2019, before Biden held the office of president.
The White House has vehemently denied any wrongdoing by Biden.
“Speaker Johnson’s blatant hypocrisy reveals just how nakedly partisan this smear campaign against President Biden is,” said Sharon Yang, a White House spokesperson for oversight and investigations. “Instead of turning up any evidence of wrongdoing by the President, they have instead proven that they are far more interested in peddling recycled conspiracy theories in order to satisfy the most extreme members of their party, rather than anything that would address the issues the American people actually care about like lowering costs, creating jobs, and strengthening our health care.”
Johnson, however, has called the case compelling.
“The evidence and the allegations against President Biden are the worst in the history of the country — it’s not even close,” Johnson said on the podcast he co-hosted with his wife in August. “This makes Watergate look like a walk in the park.”
He announced he would likely hold a vote in the House to open a formal impeachment inquiry this week.
Even some impeachment experts cited by Johnson during the impeachment of Trump suggest weakness in the case against Biden.
For example, during one radio interview in 2019, Johnson cited conservative law professor Jonathan Turley, who testified for Republicans that Trump’s impeachment was unwarranted. In September, Turley testified that the evidence against Biden also did not yet meet the standard for impeachment – though it warranted opening an inquiry.
Five legal experts CNN spoke with characterized Johnson’s support for impeachment as a political weapon, with some calling the case for impeachment against Biden legally baseless.
“Politicians in this context always are using impeachment for political purposes, and they’re unabashed in their willingness to use it against their opponents while previously having defended against its use for their allies,” said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, in a phone interview.
While the 2019 inquiry into Trump had “tangible, direct evidence of wrongdoing” at this point in the process, said Elie Honig, a former state and federal prosecutor and senior CNN legal analyst, Republicans have yet to produce evidence to sustain their allegations.
“We have disjointed theories based on scraps of evidence that don’t directly implicate the president,” he told CNN in an email.
Zeldin added, “If you look at prior impeachments, they all relate to conduct undertaken by the office holder while in office. Whereas in the Biden case, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that President Biden has done anything to trigger the language of impeachment.
“Instead, they’re using a period of time prior to his presidency. That would seem not a legal basis for an impeachment,” he said.
Some legal experts criticized attempts to use impeachment proceedings for purely political means, saying it wasn’t what the Founding Fathers intended.
Much as Johnson pointed out four years ago: “They openly said and wrote about, spoke about, how it might be irreparable damage to the country.”
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