8 min read

Four years, three impeachments

Kevin McCarthy is launching an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden. Here’s what you need to know.
Four years, three impeachments
Top: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announces an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, September 2023. Bottom: Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry into then-President Trump, September 2019. (Screengrabs)

The Founding Fathers intended presidential impeachments to be rare. And, until recently, they were: for the first 230 years of the republic, only three impeachment inquiries were opened by the House of Representatives.

Now, after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced an impeachment inquiry against President Biden on Tuesday, we will have had that same amount in just the past four years.

Of course, these impeachments have had very different contexts and very different fact patterns — but their regularity suggests a new norm under construction in American politics: when the president hails from one party and the House majority from another, don’t be surprised if almost any oversight investigation bubbles up into an impeachment probe before long. The first articles of impeachment against Donald Trump were filed less than seven months into his term; the earliest against Biden were filed on his second day in office.

Something the Framers did anticipate, however, was that impeachment would become politicized. Consider this warning from Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 65:

[The offenses that lead to impeachment] are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

Indeed, every impeachment in American history has had some political dimension to it, from Andrew Johnson’s clashes with the so-called “Radical Republicans,” led by Thaddeus Stevens, to Bill Clinton’s battles against Newt Gingrich to Trump’s poisonous relationship with Nancy Pelosi.  

With that in mind, let’s analyze the implications of McCarthy’s announcement from two perspectives — the legal and the political:

Legally, it’s not clear that much changes now that McCarthy has launched an impeachment probe. Traditionally, the House has been seen as having expanded investigative powers during an impeachment — but some experts argue that these powers are predicated on the full House authorizing an impeachment inquiry, as occurred before the Nixon and Clinton investigations.

In this case, McCarthy merely announced that he was directing House committees to begin looking into an impeachment. When Pelosi did the same thing in 2019, the Trump Justice Department issued a legal opinion declaring that the probe was invalid until it was blessed by the full House, a document that Biden officials will surely invoke to evade forthcoming subpoenas. (During the first Trump impeachment, the full House did eventually authorize an impeachment probe more than a month after Pelosi’s announcement.)

Back in 2019, McCarthy blasted Pelosi for unilaterally launching an impeachment inquiry; just two weeks ago, he pledged to Breitbart that he wouldn’t do the same thing. On Tuesday, he said that he was merely following the precedent set by Democrats during the Trump era; McCarthy aides have said a full House vote authorizing the investigation is still possible in the weeks ahead, a la 2019.

As for the legal context behind the probe, the Biden investigation is being opened with a thinner paper trail than most previous impeachments have had when they were launched. During his announcement, McCarthy said that House Republicans have already “uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct,” although he then went on to mostly detail claims about members of Biden’s family.

“Bank records show that nearly $20 million in payments were directed to Biden family members and associates through various shell companies,” McCarthy said — which is true, although none of the payments have been traced to Biden himself. While the records do link his son, Hunter Biden, to unsavory conduct (many of the payments came from Russian, Kazakh, and Ukrainian oligarchs), it is not illegal to form a shell company or work for a foreign corporation. (It is illegal to lobby for foreign companies without registering with the U.S. government. Hunter Biden is being investigated by prosecutors for potentially doing so, but has not received criminal charges.)

McCarthy added that Republicans have found that Biden “joined multiple phone calls and had multiple interactions” with his son’s business partners. Again, this is true: Devon Archer, a business associate of Hunter Biden’s, has testified that Biden attended two dinners and was put on speakerphone during roughly 20 phone calls with his son’s business associates. But Archer also said that the elder Biden only came on to exchange pleasantries each time; no business was ever discussed with the then-vice president.

Archer has testified that Hunter Biden was selling the Biden “brand” and the “illusion of access” to his father: Burisma, the Ukrainian oil company that paid him to sit on its board, “would have gone out of business if it didn’t have the [Biden] brand attached to it,” Archer told investigators. But no evidence emerged that President Biden was involved in discussions (or payments) related to Hunter Biden’s businesses or that official policy was changed as a result.

McCarthy also alleged on Tuesday that Biden “did lie to the American people about his own knowledge of his family’s foreign business dealings.” Indeed, Biden falsely said in 2020 that his son had not made money from China and that he never met with his son’s business partners — both of which have been proven incorrect.  

The political angle

The political context of McCarthy’s announcement is obvious: Congress is careening towards a high-stakes spending clash, and the speaker hopes that conservatives will forgive him for working with Democrats to avert a shutdown if a Biden impeachment probe is underway.

Again, though, it’s not clear much will change for McCarthy after Tuesday. Just after the speaker’s announcement, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) threatened on the House floor to trigger daily votes on ousting McCarthy if the House approved a stopgap spending bill, which will be needed to avert a shutdown.

Just as the impeachment probe has not cured McCarthy’s problems with his right flank, it will likely only exacerbate concerns from vulnerable Republican members, who could be put in a politically risky position if the full House eventually votes on impeachment. In the elections after the Clinton and first Trump impeachments, the parties that impeached the presidents both lost ground in the House.

McCarthy’s move has only exposed deeper splits within the GOP: most Senate Republicans and many members of his own conference have expressed opposition to impeachment.

“The time for impeachment is the time when there’s evidence linking President Biden...to a high crime and misdemeanor,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said on MSNBC. “That doesn’t exist right now.” (Buck’s comments have led to intense blowback from his Freedom Caucus colleagues.)

Within the Biden White House, officials are reportedly unconcerned about the fresh impeachment push. The reaction on the Democratic side of the aisle is perhaps best summed up by Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA):

“Oooh, don’t do it!” Fetterman said sarcastically. “Please don’t do it!”

Thanks for reading WUTP this Wednesday morning. We’re 124 days away from the Iowa caucuses and 419 days away from the 2024 elections. Please don’t impeach me from this newsletter: instead, support my work by donating here and telling your friends to subscribe.

More news to know.

A crop of influential D.C. writers are turning against the Biden-Harris ticket. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called for Biden to drop out on Tuesday, while Substack author Josh Barro urged the president to ditch Kamala Harris for Gretchen Whitmer.

Democratic secretaries of state want no part in kicking Trump off the ballot. Surveys by NBC News and Politico found little interest from election officials in participating in a 14th Amendment gambit. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Colorado rejected Trump’s request to move a 14th amendment effort against the ex-president from state to federal court.

Child poverty more than doubled in 2022. Per the Census Bureau, the rate of American children living in poverty went from 5.2% in 2021 — an all-time low — to 12.4% last year. The enhanced Child Tax Credit, which offered monthly payments to American parents, expired at the end of 2021 and was not renewed by Congress. The child poverty rate is now back to around the same level as it was in 2019, before the pandemic-era welfare expansion.

A few more headlines...

The day ahead.

AI on the Hill: Many leading tech titans will be at the Capitol today for a Senate forum on artificial intelligence. X’s Elon Musk, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and OpenAI’s Sam Altman will all be on hand, as well as some AI critics and outside experts.

Shutdown watch: Neither chamber of Congress has any votes scheduled today, but both will continue debating spending bills. The Senate will continue consideration of its “minibus” package, covering funding for the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development; the House will consider its Defense Department spending bill,

GOP get-together: House Republicans will gather in-person today for the first time since July. The topic will be spending; another conference meeting on impeachment is scheduled for tomorrow.

1600 Penn: President Biden will convene a meeting of his “Cancer Cabinet,” a group of officials working on his initiative to dramatically reduce deaths from cancer. Later, he will attend a fundraiser in McLean, Virginia.  VP Harris will headline a fundraising summit in Chicago.

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