By announcing that he was launching an impeachment probe of President Biden, whom Republicans allege of improper involvement in his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has embarked on a risky political path.
McCarthy’s gambit could, at least in the short term, help him stay in the speaker’s office by placating the hardline, pro-Trump members of the Freedom Caucus who were never very happy with his selection to begin with.
But impeachment will almost certainly not culminate in a Biden conviction and removal from office, an outcome no president in American history has had to face.
Unless Republican investigators produce clear and convincing evidence of corruption on the president’s part, impeachment could prove a politically expensive adventure for the Republican Party.
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Why Republicans are hoping to impeach Biden
At the center of the impeachment inquiry is the sordid story of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
A CNN fact check of Republican arguments in favor of impeachment described the presence of “clear evidence” that Hunter Biden “leveraged his famous name while pursuing lucrative foreign deals,” including in China and Ukraine. (The first Trump impeachment stemmed from his attempts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch a new investigation of Hunter Biden.)
At the same time, Republicans “have not presented any proof that Joe Biden ever profited off his son’s business deals or was influenced while in office by his son’s business dealings,” according to CNN.
It could be that Biden did not do enough to dissuade his son — who has a long history of substance abuse and turmoil in his personal life — from dealing with shadowy foreign entities seeking access to Washington’s power centers. He arguably could have done more to make clear that there were political dangers to such relationships.
But lapsed judgment is, on its own, not an impeachable offense. And as an adult, Hunter Biden was free to make his own decisions.
The House was already investigating whether the president personally profited from Hunter Biden’s business deals or whether business considerations swayed U.S. foreign policy.
In the meantime, an unlikely critic of impeachment has emerged in conservative Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., who served as a federal prosecutor in the 1990s and, later, as a district attorney.
“I have been a prosecutor for 25 years,” Buck recently said, “I want to see evidence that ties Joe Biden to Hunter Biden’s activities. I haven’t seen that evidence yet.”
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Is it a good idea?
As many Republicans have been pointing out in recent days, Democratic investigations of Trump began as soon as he took office. Many of the former president’s supporters remain embittered because, in their view, the Washington establishment never gave him a chance to govern without having fend off a series of high-profile inquiries into election interference, connections to Russia and other alleged wrongs.
McCarthy appears to have agreed to an impeachment probe out of concern for his political future. He only emerged as speaker after a brutal — and public — fight that saw opposition from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus.
If they withdraw their support out of perception that he isn’t moving aggressively enough against Biden and his agenda, McCarthy could face a vote of no-confidence and lose his speakership, a threat Gaetz keeps invoking.
At the same time, launching the impeachment of a sitting president without an ironclad case could find McCarthy trying to wrangle a political circus that ultimately weakens him, puts vulnerable House Republicans in jeopardy and elevates the party’s most divisive figures in Congress, including Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, a close Trump ally.
Impeachment will also force Republicans in swing districts to answer endless questions about Hunter Biden instead of talking about issues that hit most Americans closer to home, such as inflation.
“Pretty much everyone acknowledges that this isn’t how Mr. McCarthy wanted the impeachment thing to go,” argues columnist Michelle Cottle of the New York Times. “As a political animal, he knows that a slipshod, nakedly partisan impeachment inquiry started without compelling evidence threatens the electoral fortunes of his members from more moderate areas.”
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Will it succeed?
That depends on what success looks like.
The House votes on articles of impeachment; the Senate then decides whether each article merits a conviction. In both Trump impeachments, a House controlled by Democrats voted in the affirmative to impeach, while a narrowly divided Senate failed to find the requisite 67 votes for conviction.
With the Democrats in control of the Senate and most moderate Republicans in the upper chamber having shown little zeal for impeachment, the chances that Biden will be convicted approach zero.
But there could still be months of headlines about Hunter Biden and corruption. Whom those headlines ultimately damage is an open question.
The probe McCarthy has launched this week is unlikely to quietly go away and will probably result in articles of impeachment. The House is controlled by Republicans, and holdouts like Buck are expected to eventually follow party leaders and vote to impeach.
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What history tells us
While no president could possibly welcome being impeached, congressional Democrats benefited from Republicans’ impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998; in that year’s midterms, Democrats bucked historical trends by gaining seats in the House and Senate.
Although Clinton was more popular than Biden, a similar dynamic could help the president in 2024, especially since his reelection is premised on the notion that the Republican Party has become a band of extremists uninterested in the business of governing.
“The strongest case Democrats have against impeachment is that it’s not only a waste of time but is coming at the expense of governing: that the House GOP is privileging frivolous, political investigations over trying to fix a host of other pressing problems,” argues Alex Shephard in the New Republic.
The impeachment of Clinton was engineered by Newt Gingrich, the combative House speaker. Earlier this summer, Gingrich offered a terse assessment of Republicans’ coalescing plan to impeach Biden: “a terrible idea.”
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