Why Republicans are pursuing an unfounded impeachment inquiry into Biden

Mike Johnson pictured wearing a navy suit jacket, red tie, and glasses. He appears to be holding a blue pen in his hand.
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) departs a House Republican Conference meeting on November 14, 2023, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.  | Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

House Republicans are set to vote on an inquiry despite no evidence of Biden’s wrongdoing.

This week, House Republicans are set to continue their pursuit of an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, a decision that comes despite there being no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden at this time. This push coincides with the start of the 2024 election cycle and is likely to play a central role in Republican efforts to discredit Biden and Democrats ahead of next year’s November contests.

Prior to leaving for the holidays, House lawmakers are expected to take a vote approving the impeachment inquiry, which is effectively an investigation of possible misconduct by Biden.

Previously, Republicans had been too fractured to have the votes needed to actually approve an inquiry, but that dynamic has changed as the White House has balked at responding to committee subpoenas related to ongoing investigations into Biden’s past unless there’s a formalized — and successful — House vote. Previously, the Trump administration levied comparable arguments about ignoring subpoenas when a Democrat-led House was conducting an impeachment inquiry without holding a formal vote. A recent federal indictment that accuses Hunter Biden, Biden’s son, of failing to properly pay his taxes has also fueled new GOP support.

“The impeachment inquiry is the next necessary step because the White House is now stonewalling our investigation,” House Speaker Mike Johnson argued in a Sunday interview on Fox News.

Technically, an inquiry is already underway after former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy unilaterally initiated one earlier this year following pressure from far-right members. That enabled committees to begin holding hearings about the allegations against Biden, and to begin demanding documents and interviews with witnesses.

Despite the growing support for the vote, including from moderate members, Republicans’ actual findings haven’t changed much. GOP leaders have accused Biden of using his position as President Barack Obama’s vice president to promote policies that enrich his family, particularly his son, Hunter Biden, but they’ve found scant evidence that this was the case. They’ve also claimed that he’s personally benefitted from Hunter’s business schemes but have yet to provide proof of this allegation, either.

As such, the push to formalize the inquiry appears driven more by the House GOP’s internal dynamics and political goals than the substance of the allegations. The party’s right flank had long backed an impeachment inquiry, in part due to Biden conspiracy theories that have circulated in far-right spheres. Additionally, Republicans hope to see their nominee, likely to be former President Donald Trump, retake the White House next year. And an inquiry, and possible impeachment, will allow the GOP to go on the offensive against Biden ahead of the presidential election in 2024 and defuse some of the attention on Trump’s legal baggage.

After the vote, the inquiry will continue to be led by three House committees. It comes as Congress faces a tight timeline to pass legislation in the new year. Some Republicans, particularly those in the Senate, have suggested the inquiry will become a distraction from finding consensus on government spending bills and other business the House will have to tackle in the coming months. And though more moderate Republicans are now backing the inquiry, some have candidly stated that there’s little proof to justify an actual impeachment at this time.

“There’s not evidence to impeach,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), a GOP member who is supporting the inquiry because it could pressure the White House to acquiesce to more information requests, told the Messenger. “We have had enough political impeachments in this country.”

Why some Republicans want an impeachment inquiry — and others don’t

After an impeachment inquiry is formally approved, three House committees — Oversight, Judiciary, and Ways and Means — will continue their investigations into Hunter Biden’s business dealings as well as President Biden’s involvement.

So far, Republicans have found that Biden’s son, Hunter, made millions of dollars while his father was vice president. Devon Archer, a business associate of Hunter Biden’s, has previously testified to the House Oversight Committee that businesses were interested in working with Hunter in part due to his proximity to the Biden “brand.”

One key piece of evidence Republicans have cited from Archer’s testimony is that Biden participated in roughly 20 phone calls with Hunter’s business contacts. However, Archer stressed those encounters consisted of small talk like the weather and not issues of substance. Archer also testified that he hadn’t seen President Biden attempt to use his office to help Hunter advance his career.

Some “evidence,” such as claims Biden engaged in quid pro quo schemes, have been disproved. Others, like testimony from whistleblowers who claim the government gave Hunter Biden lenient treatment in its investigations into potential misconduct, have been largely discredited. As the New York Times explained, “there is no evidence that Mr. Biden ordered that his son get special treatment in any investigation.”

Overall, House Republicans’ investigations have not found any actual, concrete proof of wrongdoing by President Biden. As a result, their decision to keep on backing an inquiry is surprising, since it’s historically not been done until there’s significant evidence of misconduct. Republicans have argued that the inquiry is to help them gather this information: It provides a legal framework that could enable these committees to gain more subpoena powers for documents, though the legal precedent for this is unclear, and even if the inquiry is formalized, any subpoenas are likely to be met with lawsuits.

Republicans who are backing the House vote on the inquiry argue it will give lawmakers even more legal grounds to subpoena witnesses and documents from the White House. “That doesn’t mean we have high crimes or misdemeanors. We may not ever. But let’s get the facts, and we’ll go from there,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), a swing district Republican, told the Hill.

Currently, the House does not yet have a strong case that Biden committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” one of the charges a president can be impeached for.

Moderate swing district lawmakers do face some electoral risks in voting to support an impeachment inquiry, but many have signaled that they see a vote for an inquiry as separate and less politically fraught than backing a potential impeachment. According to a Politico whip count, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) could be one of the only House Republicans who remains opposed to moving an inquiry forward. “What’s missing, despite years of investigation, is the smoking gun that connects Joe Biden to his ne’er-do-well son’s corruption,” Buck, who is retiring after this term, previously said in a September Washington Post op-ed.

Multiple Republicans — including Senate leaders like Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — have expressed concerns that the GOP is moving forward on an inquiry without providing clear evidence of the offenses it will center on. “I think before you begin an impeachment inquiry, you ought to have some evidence, some inclination that there’s been wrongdoing. And so far, there’s nothing of that nature that’s been provided,” said Romney in an NBC News interview. In that same interview, he noted that he would vote against an inquiry if he were a member of the House.

Two legal impeachment experts who spoke with Time in September have also described this effort as potentially the weakest that’s ever been launched in US history. “I honestly don’t know that there is any evidence tying the president to corrupt activities when he was vice president or now,” Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia law school professor, told Time.

What could happen next in the impeachment inquiry

Since this is in the inquiry stage, it’s possible the investigation doesn’t move to an impeachment vote. For a president to be impeached by the House, the majority of the chamber has to vote for articles of impeachment — or charges — against them. That could be a tough sell given the political backlash moderate Republicans in districts that Biden previously won would face.

In 2022, 18 Republicans won districts that Biden also won in 2020. While it’s possible they could be swayed, and many have signaled support for the inquiry, they’d likely face a serious penalty from voters if they made such a move — particularly if investigators are unable to find any additional evidence of wrongdoing.

After a successful impeachment vote, the Senate typically holds a trial during which lawmakers present a case and the president puts forth a defense. The Senate ultimately votes on convicting the president, with a two-thirds majority needed in order to remove anyone from office. Democrats could potentially change or ignore Senate rules to avoid holding a trial, though as McConnell previously explained during the Trump administration, doing that is dependent on lawmaker support.

Still, even if Biden were to be acquitted in the Senate, he would, like Trump before him, be an impeached president. And that would provide Republicans something to rally around — and hang over Biden’s head — as election season goes into full swing.

Republicans hope to hurt Biden in an election year

The Biden impeachment push is a continuation of Republican attempts to put heat on the White House. Already, the House has focused heavily on investigations that allege bias by the DOJ and FBI, and that scrutinize the administration’s policies on everything from Afghanistan to immigration. As Vox’s Christian Paz reported, these administration-focused investigations have yielded few breakthroughs, however, and haven’t generated strong public support.

A formal impeachment inquiry would add to existing investigations that House Republicans have already done on the Biden family’s business practices — and be a way for Republicans to try to get more of the public onboard.

Even though it has no substantive foundation, for example, an impeachment inquiry could be used to try to dent perceptions of Biden. As political scientists Douglas Kriner and Eric Schickler have found in the past, negative investigations can hurt presidents’ approval ratings over time. And as was the case in Republicans’ Benghazi investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, investigators sometimes stumble upon findings that can be politically weaponized.

Despite concluding that there was no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, that panel scrutinized how Clinton had used a private email server while secretary of state, a finding that spurred another investigation by the FBI, which became a central issue Republicans successfully used against her in the 2016 election.

Impeachment could also be a way for Republicans on the campaign trail to suggest that Biden and Trump are both facing legal scrutiny even though the two cases are not comparable at all. By initiating an inquiry, Republicans can attempt to muddy the waters when it comes to how Biden is perceived, arguing that the two candidates both come with ethical baggage.

Update, December 12, 6 pm: This story was originally published on September 13 and has been updated to include information about House Republicans’ vote on the impeachment inquiry.

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