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What we learned at the GOP’s first Biden ‘impeachment hearing’

This was not an auspicious start for the House Republicans' attempt to show that Joe Biden needs to be removed from office.

Thursday wasn’t a very fun day for the GOP majority on the House Oversight Committee. Republicans had spent the last week hyping their first official hearing since Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. This was supposed to be their big coming-out, the extremely official and serious process of laying out, in their words, “the basis for an impeachment inquiry.”

What the GOP got was six hours of muddled, scattershot messaging from its members, united opposition from Democrats, less-than-helpful witnesses and grumbling from within its own ranks at a missed opportunity. We did learn plenty at this hearing — just none of it about Biden himself. Here’s what I gleaned from the spectacle:  

The road map to articles of impeachment is filled with blank spots

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, the three committees spearheading the inquiry — Oversight, Judiciary and Ways and Means — had released a 30-page memo that defined the scope of the inquiry and the case so far (such as it is). Republicans indicated that they intend to look at information from when Biden was vice president, since he became president and the period in between when he was a private citizen. The memo also makes it clear that there “is no artificial deadline for concluding this inquiry,” meaning it’s entirely possible this thing stretches out until the general election next year.

In undertaking this inquiry, the GOP claims to be looking into four main questions:

  • Did Biden take any official actions or change U.S. policy as the result of money or other things given to him or members of his family (aka bribery)?
  • Did he abuse his office by providing access in exchange for money paid to him or his family (aka influence peddling)?
  • Did he abuse his office by “knowingly participating in a scheme to enrich himself or his family by giving foreign interests the impression that they would receive access to him and his office in exchange for payments to his family or him”?
  • Did he try to impede investigations into his son Hunter Biden?

Republicans don’t have the goods — but they’re just asking questions

None of those questions from the GOP memo have slam-dunk evidence associated with them. For example, the only ostensible policy change that anyone allegedly got from Biden was the firing of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin for looking into the energy company that hired Hunter. That point has been debunked so many times by now, including by none other than former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a Fox News appearance over the weekend, that it’s incredible that people aren’t laughed out of the room for bringing it up.

The third point — that Biden knowingly led people to believe that they’d have access to him through Hunter — holds a bit more water, given the testimony of Devon Archer, who is Hunter’s former business partner. Archer said that veneer of influence was part of Hunter’s pitch to businesses — but no one has produced any evidence that Biden himself was directly encouraging or profiting from his son’s self-aggrandizing.

House Republicans have also struggled to knit together any of the loose threads they’ve gathered to imply that Biden was exerting any kind of political influence while he was out of office that would rise to the level of impeachment. Because of that, many of the GOP committee members Thursday stressed that it’s still early in the inquiry process, even though they’ve been investigating the Bidens for the last eight months.

Even the GOP’s witnesses don’t see any bombshell evidence yet

That’s not exactly what you want to hear if you’re Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., and you’ve been claiming that it’s clear that Biden has abused his office, as he did in a statement before the hearing began. The witnesses Republicans chose for this hearing included an expert on white-collar crime, a former head of the Tax Division of the Justice Department and Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University.

Turley was last brought out during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment to push back on the Democrats’ case ahead of drafting articles of impeachment. So imagine the surprise when his written testimony said that “while I believe that an impeachment inquiry is warranted, I do not believe that the evidence currently meets the standard of a high crime and misdemeanor needed for an article of impeachment.” Again, that runs counter to the Republicans’ full-throated messaging up till now, which was that Biden had clearly done something impeachable and now it was just a matter of actually finding that pesky evidence.

Some grumpy GOP aides were unafraid to anonymously vent their frustration that the witnesses either undercut the claims or were otherwise unable to shore them up. “It is shocking that House Oversight would tap witnesses that don’t enforce your narrative,” one told The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany. CNN’s Melanie Zanona quoted a senior aide as saying that “picking witnesses that refute House Republicans arguments for impeachment is mind-blowing. This is an unmitigated disaster.”

Democrats are willing to call out a sham when they see one

The panel’s Democrats were quick to point out that none of the witnesses had any firsthand knowledge of any wrongdoing by the president. Many of the committee members chose to use their time to rail against the fact that Republicans were wasting their time on this hearing instead of preventing the looming federal government shutdown. According to a House memo that Politico published Wednesday, the impeachment inquiry would continue despite a shutdown, as staffers working on the task will be considered “essential” while other federal employees are furloughed. Compare that to contractors on the Hill, including janitors and food service workers, who wouldn’t necessarily get back pay while Congress is shut down.

“Congressional Republicans have also made clear that this fact-free stunt will continue even if the government shuts down because they believe these partisan political attacks are more important than ensuring our troops get paid, funding efforts to fight fentanyl trafficking, making sure kids and infants have access to food assistance, and more,” Sharon Yang, a White House spokesperson for oversight and investigations, said in a statement after the hearing had finally wrapped.

Comer had telegraphed beforehand that this hearing wouldn’t bring forward anything new, but I didn’t expect it to be this substance-free. If it had taken place at the same point as a similar hearing during Trump’s impeachment, after weeks of material witnesses had testified, things might be very different. But instead, not only did the emperor have no clothes, but he didn’t even have the excuse of trotting this look out as new.

If I had to sum up the main lesson that I learned in watching Thursday’s hearing, it’d be this: If this is the best they’ve got, it’s gonna be a long 14 months until Election Day.