When House Republicans return from their recess this fall, they’re likely to have an item on their agenda besides pushing the government toward shutdown: impeaching Joe Biden. “You’ve got to get to the bottom of the truth, and the only way Congress can do that is go to impeachment inquiry,” the Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, said on Tuesday. Some Republicans are pretending that a mere inquiry doesn’t imply an actual impeachment, but it’s hard to imagine MAGA congressmen being satisfied with an investigation that stops short of bringing charges.
“What I’m hearing from Republicans is that Speaker McCarthy basically has no choice,” Jamie Raskin, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said when I asked him whether impeachment was likely. “This is what they want.” And with yet another Trump indictment imminent, I suspect impeachment momentum will only accelerate. Amid the drama of a presidential front-runner facing multiple felony charges, Republicans are going to need counterprogramming.
To be clear, impeachment is not what all Republicans want: As The New York Times wryly noted, some in the party argue “that the House must find actual corruption or wrongdoing before lawmakers consider impeachment.” Given McCarthy’s very thin margins in the House, he may not have the votes to begin a process some of his members are dreading. Nevertheless, with the Republican base clamoring for impeachment, McCarthy has clearly signaled it’s a live possibility. Which raises a question: Impeachment for what?
This is less obvious than it should be, at least if you’re not immersed in the Fox News cinematic universe. Democrats are largely tuning out the House’s lurid and shambolic investigatory hearings, which have so far featured photos of a naked Hunter Biden and a much-hyped star witness who turned out to be a fugitive indicted on charges of, among other things, arms trafficking and acting as an unregistered Chinese agent. Behind this circus, however, is something rather astonishing: A major part of the pretext for a possible impeachment of Joe Biden is exactly the same set of lies about Ukraine that helped convince Democrats to impeach Donald Trump the first time.
Let’s recall why Trump tried to essentially extort Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The ex-president wanted Zelensky’s help creating the false impression that a bribery scheme led Biden, as vice president, to call on the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. In 2018, Rudy Giuliani dispatched two henchmen — both now convicted felons — to Ukraine to find proof that Biden had targeted Shokin to protect the energy company Burisma, which had put Biden’s son Hunter on its board.
Not surprisingly, Giuliani’s men came back empty-handed. “Throughout all these months of work, the extensive campaigns and networking done by Trump allies and Giuliani associates, including the enormously thorough interviews and assignments that I undertook, there has never been any evidence that Hunter or Joe Biden committed any crimes related to Ukrainian politics,” one of the two men, Lev Parnas, wrote in a recent letter to the Republican chairman of the Oversight Committee.
It’s true that Hunter Biden almost certainly owed his Burisma gig to his family name, a sleazy arrangement if not an illegal or uncommon one. (See, for example, the $2 billion investment Jared Kushner received from a Saudi investment fund over the objections of the fund’s own advisers, which found the operations of Kushner’s firm “unsatisfactory in all aspects.”) Republicans have demonstrated, if it wasn’t clear already, that Hunter is a deeply compromised figure who should never hold any position of public trust. But Joe Biden wasn’t acting in his son’s interest when he called for the removal of Shokin.
Shokin’s removal was a priority for Ukraine’s Western allies because he was, as The New York Times reported in 2016, “widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.” Among those Shokin was alleged to have protected was none other than Mykola Zlochevsky, head of Burisma. The anti-corruption activist Daria Kaleniuk told The Intercept that Shokin was fired for his failure to investigate the “corruption and economic crimes” of the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed and fled to Russia, “and his close associates, including Zlochevsky.” It’s hard to see what Zlochevsky had to gain if Shokin were replaced by a prosecutor with more integrity.
Of course, that didn’t stop Trump from trying to manipulate Zelensky into opening an investigation into Biden, Shokin and Burisma, part of an effort to give weight to his smears of Biden. At the time of Trump’s first impeachment, those smears were repeatedly debunked. But now Republicans claim they have a reason for resurrecting them: House investigators recently discovered an F.B.I. document from 2020 that mentions a confidential source claiming to have heard Zlochevsky bragging about paying the Bidens to deal with Shokin. According to the document, this confidential source claimed Zlochevsky had 17 recordings to back him up.
As Raskin points out, though, Trump’s Justice Department already scrutinized these claims and evidently found nothing worth acting on, and even some Republicans who eagerly hyped the recordings have since conceded they may not exist. Impeaching Biden over this kind of hearsay would be like impeaching Trump over the Steele dossier.
Nevertheless, there is a sort of logic to House Republicans’ impeachment plans. Part of their motivation, Raskin argues, is an attempt to ensure that Trump isn’t the only 2024 candidate carrying the stigma of impeachment. More than that, by impeaching Biden for Burisma, they’d be signaling that Trump, as president, would have been justified in asking Zelensky to investigate Biden. Republicans may not be able to expunge Trump’s impeachments, which the ex-president is reportedly demanding. But they could retroactively try to excuse the behavior that led to the first one.
And since the Republican aim is getting revenge and sowing confusion, rather than actually proving high crimes and misdemeanors, they may be able to use the obscurity of the allegations — and the need to plunge down various rabbit holes to understand them — to their advantage. Rather than make a specific case, Republicans are trying to foment the cynical sense that scandal surrounds Biden just as it does Trump. The point is not to hold anyone accountable for actual wrongdoing, but to parody the process of trying.
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