Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced Republicans were opening an impeachment inquiry into President Biden on Tuesday, after months of pressure from House conservatives. There’s no direct evidence of wrongdoing by Biden, or any one particular revelation that prompted the move, but McCarthy said it would enable committees to dig deeper. Here’s what you need to know.
What does this allow the House to do? It could provide Republicans with ever-so-slightly greater legal leverage to investigate the Bidens. The House’s ordinary oversight power gives it broad authority to subpoena documents and witnesses so long as the information could plausibly help it craft future legislation. But that power isn’t unlimited — it’s not supposed to be used to probe individual crimes for instance, University of Missouri Law Professor Frank Bowman III told Semafor. “If you’ve got an explicit impeachment investigation going, then in theory, the House has an enhanced power of inquiry,” he said.
But there’s a catch, Bowman added. If a subpoena target refuses to cooperate, Republicans will either need Biden’s own Justice Department to bring criminal contempt charges, which seems unlikely, or file a civil suit to enforce their request, which would take a while to resolve. One potential outcome: If Biden turns down document demands, Republicans may try to impeach him for obstruction.
Does McCarthy need a vote to do this? Democrats embarked on their 2019 impeachment inquiry into Trump without a full House vote (they held one about a month later). McCarthy criticized that decision and said just this month a GOP inquiry would proceed with “a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person.” Then on Tuesday, he announced he was skipping a vote for now, citing Nancy Pelosi’s precedent. Even Republicans had a hard time keeping track of his position, which coincided with some members expressing skepticism about impeachment.
Does it matter legally? Maybe, at least if GOP investigators actually try to enforce a subpoena in court. Without a vote, there is a question about whether there is a bona fide impeachment inquiry which could impact how a judge rules, said Michael Conway, who served on the House Judiciary Committee staff during the impeachment of Richard Nixon. “The real question is has Congress initiated an impeachment process,” he said.
What are Republicans looking for? Existing witness interviews, bank records, and documents indicate Hunter Biden was happy to name drop his father in his dealings, and even show off his phone calls with him, but offered no evidence the president was engaged in his business or profiting from it. Democrats say that’s the end of the case. McCarthy says they still have some rocks they want to turn over — most notably bank and credit card statements from companies tied to Hunter.
Does this get us out of a government shutdown? Republicans didn’t beat around the bush on this one: The sudden urgency to open an impeachment probe has a lot to do with the sudden urgency to fund the government before a Sep. 30 deadline with conservative support. “It provides him one more step in keeping folks with him in the process,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. said to HuffPost’s Igor Bobic. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., a prominent impeachment critic, told NBC News’ Sahil Kapur it might remove a “distraction” from funding talks. Or, as one displeased Senate Republican told the Hill: “Maybe this is just Kevin giving people their binkie to get through the shutdown.”
How does this affect McCarthy? Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. again escalated his threats to force a vote to remove him from the speakership. In a floor speech, he warned holding a vote on a stopgap spending bill — which may be necessary to avoid an imminent shutdown — would be an “automatic trigger” for such a step. And he didn’t sound too impressed with the impeachment inquiry, calling it a “baby step.”
Can Democrats do anything in response? The initial response has been largely political, rather than procedural or legal, with some Democrats suggesting the move will backfire on swing seat Republicans.
The White House and its allies are describing the impeachment inquiry as an attempt to downplay Trump’s indictments. “It is a political revenge tour that lacks any factual or constitutional basis,” Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said on Tuesday. “Democrats will defend the truth and fight right-wing extremists at every turn.” House Oversight Democrats put out a 14-page memo pre-butting the impeachment news point-by-point on Monday. On the House Judiciary Committee, Democrats’ spokesperson said the committee hasn’t hired any additional staff to work specifically on the impeachment inquiry, but added “We’ll be ready.”