Playbook spent the past day trying to flesh out some of those questions. Some of them have answers, some of them don’t, and some of them have even befuddled McCarthy’s investigators — who had barely a few hours’ heads-up about yesterday’s announcement and are still strategizing about their next steps.
What are Republicans trying to prove?
That Biden was on the take. The centerpiece of the probe, as laid out in McCarthy’s public statement and a letter to his members, involves unsubstantiated claims of bribery. It’s well documented that his son, Hunter, was paid millions by foreign companies while his dad was vice president. But Republicans have not turned up any evidence showing that the elder Biden personally profited or that he took any official action to benefit those who paid his family.
Making those links will be the top priority of the probe, we’re told, but it might not be the only priority: Republicans might still pursue other allegations against Biden, such as that he “weaponized” the Justice Department against Donald Trump — which McCarthy mentioned in the letter yesterday.
What’s the timeline?
Unclear. When Democrats targeted Trump for impeachment in 2019, they launched their probe at almost the exact same point in the year and wrapped it up with an impeachment vote just before Christmas. That rat-a-rat timeline was dictated by then-speaker Nancy Pelosi, who didn’t want her swing district members dealing with impeachment baggage during the 2020 midterms.
That turned out to be a grave political mistakeending in a half-baked case that ultimately failed to convince the nation that Trump was dangerous and needed to be removed from office.
None other than Newt Gingrich told our colleagues recently that the impeachment of Bill Clinton that he presided over as speaker “failed to totally convince the American people” and offered a word of warning to his successors: “Go slow & be careful.”
Will there be public hearings?
Eventually. We’re told that, yes, Republicans expect they’ll eventually air their case before cameras as they try to convince Americans that their effort to remove Biden is justified.
First, however, we’re told that investigators currently intend to continue interviewing key witnesses in private, though nothing is final. It’s yet another shoe-on-the-other-foot moment for Republicans, who blasted Democrats during Trump’s 2019 impeachment for conducting closed-door depositions. This time around, they have a different view.
Will Republicans vote to formalize the inquiry?
That’s the plan. Back in 2019, McCarthy blasted Pelosi for refusing to formally authorize Trump’s impeachment inquiry with a House vote. Now McCarthy is doing exactly that, arguing he’s following Pelosi’s precedent. The political reasons for doing so are obvious: McCarthy doesn’t currently have the votes, senior Republicans tell us, and he’s keen to protect his swing district members from having to take a position.
Here’s the thing about the Pelosi precedent: House Democrats did, in fact, take a vote formalizing their inquiry five weeks after her initial announcement, which gave investigators time to gather additional evidence backing their quid-pro-quo allegations against Trump. We’re told by one senior GOP aide that McCarthy plans to do the same.
How is the White House going to handle this?
Very carefully. Just as McCarthy borrowed Pelosi’s playbook, the Biden White House could borrow Trump’s. As our Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein wrote last nightthe Justice Department back then determined that since the House hadn’t held a formal vote authorizing the probe, Trump and his aides were free to ignore Democrats’ impeachment subpoenas.
It’s a turnabout moment that staffers for McCarthy and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) anticipated back in 2019. McCarthy’s now chief of staff called it a “one-way ratchet,” meaning if one president ignored impeachment oversight, other presidents would follow. Jordan personally counseled Trump, unsuccessfully, against refusing to cooperate with the probe.
But tempting as it might be for Biden to tell the GOP to pound sand, he’s also facing tactical concerns. Already some impeachment-skeptical moderates are suggesting that a lack of White House cooperation on document and testimony requests could bring them around, and so a complete stonewall might well be counterproductive.
Will impeachment placate McCarthy’s conservative critics?
Sure doesn’t seem like it. For weeks, McCarthy’s inner circle privately talked about an impeachment inquiry as a sort of break-glass emergency measure that could mollify the right if the spending showdown went sideways.
Turns out that was wishful thinking. Just minutes after he announced the inquiry, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) went to the House floor to make the case for McCarthy’s potential removal, slamming the the inquiry as a “baby step” and vowing to start “every single day in Congress with the prayer, the pledge and the motion to vacate” if he doesn’t do the right’s bidding.
Gaetz isn’t alone. Other conservatives, including Reps. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas), have indicated that an impeachment probe won’t satisfy their thirst for spending cuts or a crackdown at the border.
Is there any way this doesn’t end in Biden’s impeachment?
Don’t count on it. McCarthy is privately trying to appease his unhappy centrist members by telling them that opening an inquiry is just that — an inquiry — and that doesn’t mean they’ll have to vote to actually impeach Biden someday.
Back in 2019, Jordan and his staff made fun of Pelosi when she made the exact same argument. One aide likened Pelosi’s decision to launch an impeachment probe to skydiving: Once you’re out of the plane, there’s no going back. Eventually you land in impeachment.
Any other scenario ignores the reality of 21st-century impeachment politics. Opening an inquiry then failing to follow through would be a major political boon to Biden — essentially, a tacit admission by the GOP that he’s innocent. And we wouldn’t be surprised if McCarthy uses that argument to squeeze moderates who currently see no evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors to back impeachment later on.
And if you’re expecting those moderates to withstand that pressure in order to save their own skin, that would be pitting hope against history. There’s a reason many House Republicans call centrist members “squishes” — they tend to fall in line. Facing down possible primary challenges and the ire of the base, senior Republicans think they’ll do just that.
Like this content? Sign up for POLITICO’s Playbook newsletter.