On Feb. 6, 1974, the House of Representatives considered a historic question: Should it authorize an investigation that might lead to the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon?
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) argued for the initiation of a probe under his committee’s purview.
“We are going to work expeditiously and fairly,” he told his colleagues. “When we have completed our inquiry, whatever the result, we will make our recommendations to the House. We will do so as soon as we can, consistent with principles of fairness and completeness.”
When the resolution to launch the inquiry came to a vote, only four House members opposed it. By the end of July, the committee had advanced three articles of impeachment to the full House, but Nixon resigned before they were considered.
When Rodino was advocating for the probe that February, he made an interesting argument.
“The tragedy called Watergate has now been the subject of inquiry for approximately a year, the Senate Watergate Committee, by the Special Prosecutor’s Office, now by the House Judiciary Committee,” he said. “Although charges have raged in the media there has yet to be demonstrated any evidence of impeachable conduct.”
This is a narrowly walked line. The public had witnessed the evolution of the probe since the break-in at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972. Rodino was differentiating between the evidence at hand — including Nixon’s resistance to releasing tape recordings from the Oval Office and the existence of a large gap in those recordings — and saying it was insufficient to warrant Nixon’s removal from office.
In 1998, the House again voted to launch an impeachment inquiry, this time into the actions of President Bill Clinton. The resolution was similar to the one in 1974, delineating how evidence would be collected and subpoenas issued. It was approved on a much narrower margin, however, as it centered largely on Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern. Representatives debated the issue and (in a move that would be familiar to a modern observer) introduced letters from constitutional scholars objecting to the move.
The vote also came after a surfeit of evidence about Clinton’s behavior had been made public. The vote was taken on Oct. 8, about a month after the lengthy report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr was made public. Starr had been investigating Clinton for years by that point, but his report focused on Clinton’s relationship with the intern, Monica Lewinsky. His report included nearly 100 pages aiming to close the gap that Rodino had identified in 1974; a section of his report was titled, “Acts That May Constitute Grounds for an Impeachment.”
Unlike Nixon, Clinton was impeached. The Senate declined to remove him from office.
Two decades later, the House again launched an impeachment investigation against a sitting president. That effort was initiated in September 2019 against Donald Trump and did not include a formal inquiry vote before the whole House. Instead, it was announced by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), with Democratic-led House committees then taking up the effort.
That investigation began with a much-less-robust evidentiary basis than the Nixon or Clinton impeachments. On Aug. 12, a whistleblower filed a complaint centered on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, including in a phone call that July. Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible, meaning it should be shared with congressional leaders — but it wasn’t shared, as it should have been. House Democrats subpoenaed the document; Atkinson eventually would testify about its contents.
Other details already had emerged. In August, Politico reported that the Trump administration was blocking aid that Congress had approved for Ukraine, something Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was told at the time was linked to Trump’s effort to get Zelensky to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger in the 2020 presidential election. The Washington Post editorial board discovered and reported this link between a Biden probe and the aid. On the day of Pelosi’s announcement, Trump confirmed withholding the aid from Ukraine.
The inquiry eventually would flesh out the effort, and Trump was impeached by the House.
One of those who opposed the probe was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). He objected to the initiation of an inquiry without a full House vote — but mostly he objected to what he framed as a political effort to undermine the Republican president.
“[T]his unprecedented and politically motivated decision by Speaker Pelosi” — that is, to launch a probe without a vote — “represents an abuse of power and brings discredit to the House of Representatives,” a resolution introduced by McCarthy stated. He would continue to use his position of authority to challenge the investigation; he would then vote against impeachment.
Trump was impeached for a second time on Jan. 13, 2021, a week after the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol. There was no inquiry. The article of impeachment centered on Trump’s role in triggering the riot, evidence for which was abundant and presented live on television.
On Tuesday, McCarthy, announced that he was authorizing an impeachment inquiry of his own, no House vote apparently required.
McCarthy had reportedly planned to provide his caucus at a meeting this Thursday an update from the chairmen of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees — Republican Reps. James Comer (Ky.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio), respectively. He was then going “to say that the two chairs have uncovered enough information that necessitates the House formalizing the impeachment inquiry in order to obtain the Bidens’ bank records and other documents,” according to Punchbowl News.
With that news out, though, McCarthy went ahead and made his announcement, arguing that the “allegations of abuse of power, obstruction and corruption” being made by Republicans warranted a probe.
He has been flirting with this for some time, telling Fox Business Network a few weeks ago that such a move was under consideration so that Republicans might obtain more records of President Biden’s personal finances. On Aug. 22, he argued that if the White House “provide[s] us the documents, there wouldn’t be a need for [an] impeachment inquiry.” A source familiar with the House Oversight probe indicated that no subpoena for Biden bank records has been issued.
With Congress out of session, it is not clear what has changed in the intervening three weeks. Speaking to reporters Thursday, McCarthy pointed to factors such as testimony from Biden son Hunter Biden’s business partner Devon Archer as having presented new revelations in that period — but Archer testified in July.
One thing that has changed, of course, is that McCarthy faces pressure on two fronts to launch an inquiry. The first is from within his own caucus, with fringe-right legislators including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) earning media attention by attacking what he presents as McCarthy’s lethargy. The second source of pressure is an incessant right-wing media ecosystem that has been effective at convincing Republicans that something untoward occurred with the Bidens, necessitating a formal response by Republican House leadership.
There remains no concrete evidence that Joe Biden was engaged in any illegal activity, particularly while serving as president. For the most part, the Republican effort focuses on Hunter Biden and his business activity. Comer and Jordan have dug deep into Hunter Biden’s background, bank accounts and communications and have presented an argument that Hunter Biden leveraged his last name to build out his consulting business. But the House Republicans’ probes have uncovered more refutations than evidence of the idea that the president was involved in his son’s business activities.
We are asked to believe that Archer’s testimony that Joe Biden occasionally was put on speakerphone for non-business-related conversations during meetings is more incriminating than Archer’s sworn denial that Biden was at all involved in Hunter Biden’s business or that he applied any of his power to the benefit of Hunter’s business partners. We’re also asked to believe the attestations of Comer and Jordan, both of whom have obviously misrepresented what they’ve learned in interviews.
But this is the point: The inquiry would maybe gin up the evidence on which impeachment could be predicated. It’s self-realizing!
In an interview on CNN on Monday night, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, made this case to the host, Kaitlan Collins.
“The inquiry would give us another tool in the toolbox specifically to look at Joe Biden’s bank records,” she said. “Everyone’s screaming about the evidence, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ The bank records hold all of the evidence.”
See how that works? Republicans have no concrete evidence indicating that Biden benefited from his son’s business activity or used his influence to help him (despite the insinuations of Comer and others). But they claim there is such evidence — it’s just out of reach. It’s the eternal promise of conspiracy theorists: Despite refutations and extended failures to prove accusations, something out there proves that I’m right and, therefore, correct for adhering to my beliefs.
No conversation about McCarthy’s willingness to launch an impeachment probe can ignore his 2015 comments linking an investigation into then-Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton to her political fortunes. McCarthy knows that a wide-ranging, loosely bounded probe into Biden might dig up something that incriminates the president in some way — or might, at least, bolster his side’s already successful effort to impugn the president.
It possible that Joe Biden was intimately involved in Hunter Biden’s business activities and, while serving as vice president, intentionally leveraged his power to benefit his son. That possibility, however remote, does not change the elements at play or alter comparisons between how Republicans hope to move an impeachment inquiry forward and what was on the table before the 1974, 1998, 2019 and 2021 impeachments.
In those four cases, varying degrees of evidence were at hand suggesting misconduct by the sitting president. In the current case, there are merely insinuations. Instead of clarifying existing allegations, Republicans are trying to generate some.