When Republicans took control of the House last year, they didn’t have much of a legislative agenda. With Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate, GOP lawmakers had no illusions of passing the kind of boundary-pushing conservative policy that makes their right-wing base salivate. Instead, they promised something else to the MAGA faithful: an investigation focused on the President’s troubled son Hunter Biden.
It was one of the few areas where Republicans would have free rein. Their majorities on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees granted them the authority to obtain financial records and issue subpoenas. A full-throttle probe into the Biden family, argued Rep. James Comer, who chairs the Oversight panel, would finally expose the President’s corruption.
“We’re investigating Hunter Biden because we believe he’s a national security threat, who we fear has compromised Joe Biden,” the Kentucky legislator told TIME in the fall of 2022. “The Hunter Biden investigation is slowly becoming the Joe Biden investigation.”
More than a year later, the multi-pronged investigation has failed to prove that Joe Biden benefitted from his son’s business dealings or that he used his official government power to enrich himself or his kin. Nevertheless, leading House Republicans appear determined to impeach the President in the coming months, despite queasiness from within their own ranks.
Most of the revelations from the monthslong probe have centered on Hunter Biden’s sordid past. Republicans claim they’ve uncovered more than 170 times that banks filed suspicious activities reports against him over foreign transactions; roughly twenty shell companies he created to hide his earnings from overseas business interests; and other attempts to trade on his family name. One whistleblower claims Hunter used to call up his father when he was vice president and put him on the phone with business partners, but that they never discussed anything more than pleasantries, according to a transcript of the deposition.
Virtually all of the investigation’s findings in 2023 stemmed from before Joe Biden became president. The probe revealed that Biden used an alias on emails as vice president and in 2015 attended a swanky D.C. dinner with some of Hunter’s associates from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. But those disclosures have left even Republicans underwhelmed. At a high-profile hearing in September, the GOP’s star witness, conservative law professor Jonathan Turley, said the committee had offered no evidence that Joe Biden committed a high crime or misdemeanor, the constitutional threshold for impeachment. One of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent acolytes, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, has called the impeachment effort “failure theater.”
Still, House Republicans unanimously voted in December to open an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, the formal mechanism to initiate impeachment proceedings. While the House-led investigations had already turned up more than 36,000 pages of bank records, 2,000 pages of suspicious activity reports, and hours of testimony from witnesses, a formal inquiry provides Congress with its apex of power, giving the legislative body even more discretion to dig into the Biden family finances.
To Democrats, it’s a brazen attempt by Republicans to weaponize the sins of Biden’s son against him. The inquiry, they say, is designed more to hurt Biden’s reelection bid than to hold him accountable for any transgression. Some Republicans themselves have practically said as much. Texas Rep. Troy Nehls recently told USA Today that impeaching Biden would give Trump “a little bit of ammo to fire back.” It would also force Biden to endure an impeachment trial while the twice-impeached former President faces four separate court cases that could go to trial this year. “This is not an investigation into Joe Biden,” says Rep. Daniel Goldman, a New York Democrat who served as lead counsel for Democrats on Trump’s first impeachment. “This is a fishing expedition into Joe Biden.”
For Republicans, the ordeal has exposed fissures within the caucus. In September, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy unilaterally directed an impeachment inquiry against Biden without a full vote of the House. The reason, sources familiar with the matter tell TIME, was to protect the 18 Republican members in Biden-won districts who fear that impeachment will boomerang against them in the coming elections. “They were more concerned about the political fallout of doing this,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tells TIME. “That was more their concern.” But after Speaker Mike Johnson assumed the gavel, he put the matter to a full chamber vote in what many saw was an attempt to placate the conference’s hard right. The holdouts’ reversals came as Trump allies such as Greene were threatening a MAGA-fueled retaliation and social media backlash against any defectors.
That presents a dilemma for House Republicans in blue or purple districts, according to Gunner Ramer, the political director of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump group. They may feel the need to back impeaching Biden to win their primary. “This resonates with the base,” he says. “They’re hungry for revenge.”
But such a vote could prove costly in a general election, argue Ramer and many Democrats, who point to surveys that find Americans are most concerned about the economy, immigration, and crime. “If they continue down the course of impeachment, it is easy to foretell that they could suffer huge losses in House elections in 2024,” says Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee. “There is nobody out in America who thinks that this is one of the top 10 issues in the country.”
House Republicans plan to spend the coming year trying to make it a top issue, with fresh subpoenas, more hearings, and a potential trial in the Senate. They may also try to seize on Hunter Biden’s own legal troubles; he currently faces federal felony tax charges and nearly 20 years in prison. Last month, Hunter Biden defied a congressional subpoena to appear for a private deposition, and instead showed up at the Capitol demanding to testify publicly. That way, he argued, Republicans couldn’t distort his testimony for political purposes. There are already some signs that the GOP investigation into the Bidens and conservative media’s coverage of it has shaped public opinion. A CNN poll in September found that 61% of respondents thought the President had some involvement in his son’s business dealings, with 42% saying they think he acted illegally.
Some experts suspect the GOP will try to trap Biden by making outlandish requests for information that he doesn’t provide, and then argue that he impeded the inquiry. Now that the House has formally launched an inquiry, they say, anything Biden does that can be viewed as obstruction could constitute an impeachable offense. Republicans could “send any kind of subpoena and then on a partisan vote say the President didn’t give us what we asked for,” says Michael Conway, an attorney who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 impeachment inquiry into former President Richard Nixon. One of the three articles of impeachment considered against Nixon was for defying an impeachment inquiry.
Even if the GOP-led House impeaches Biden, it’s unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict and influential Republicans have already expressed skepticism. “Impeachment ought to be rare,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, in August. “This is not good for the country.”
House Republicans are pushing ahead anyway. The power of a formal impeachment inquiry, they say, will help to produce the smoking gun. But with a likely Biden-Trump rematch on the horizon, Democrats are preparing for an impeachment process that they say is engineered to buttress Trump’s retribution-themed campaign.
“Clearly, Donald Trump wants to damage and hurt President Biden as much as possible,” says California Rep. Robert Garcia. “This is the Donald Trump revenge show.”