Ten days ago, it didn’t really matter what Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) thought about his party’s impeachment inquiry into President Biden. It had been announced by then-speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in September and yielded one hearing later that month — a hearing that, by most objective (and some subjective) accounts ended up mostly embarrassing the congressional leaders responsible for running it.
But then Johnson became speaker. And, in the first weekly news conference hosted by Republican leaders since his election, Johnson offered adamant support for the inquiry that has mostly been put on ice.
Johnson was asked his views of the inquiry by a reporter who noted that House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), one of the leaders of the inquiry, had “suggested that his investigation is winding down.” Johnson didn’t dispute that, framing the lull since the first hearing as a function of conscientiousness, not ineptitude.
He began by insisting that he took the whole thing seriously.
“I was called upon to serve on the impeachment defense team in the House twice under President Trump,” he said, “when the Democrats used it for raw partisan political purposes. And I decried that at each step of the way.”
That’s an interesting presentation, certainly. Trump was impeached twice, as Johnson notes. The second time was after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021 — days before Trump would be replaced as president by Joe Biden. It was framed by Trump’s allies as political, an effort to block him from returning to the White House, but also had an obvious immediate predicate. (The subsequent federal indictment bolsters that idea.)
The first impeachment followed a whistleblower report about Trump attempting to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Biden, with the Trump administration withholding support for the country until that announcement was made. The whistleblower report paired with news reports about the block on aid and led to the announcement of an inquiry in September 2019. Witnesses were deposed by congressional investigators in October. And hearings were held in November, with a report on Trump’s actions released in December.
It was unquestionably robust, predicated on a third-party accusation from within the government coupled with outside news. It moved quickly and compiled evidence from numerous impartial actors. It was, in nearly every way, the opposite of the impeachment inquiry that Johnson now hails.
“What you’re seeing right now is a deliberate constitutional process that was envisioned by the founders, the framers of the Constitution,” Johnson claimed at the news conference. “This is how they envisioned this to go, not the way the Democrats did it: snap impeachments, sham impeachments and all the rest.”
He went on to insist that Comer and his colleagues were doing an “extraordinary job very methodically and I would say outside the scope of politics.”
This, too, fails to withstand scrutiny.
Let’s consider the most recent allegation offered up by Comer, the one published by the Oversight Committee on Thursday. It was not about the “40 confidential informants” that Comer included in a recent fundraising pitch, nor was it the $200,000 payment to Biden that Comer had focused on last week — a sum that was quickly shown to be from Biden’s brother in payment of an outstanding loan.
No, Comer was instead hyping another loan from his brother James, one that was already known by investigators and members of the media. This one, of $40,000, held more appeal for Comer presumably because he was able to draw a very tenuous line back to China.
We’ll get back to that in a second. For now, it’s worth elevating the point that this other loan was known to exist. There were documents in the possession of the Oversight Committee last week, if not earlier, showing the loan repayment. But instead of focusing on it last week alongside the $200,000 loan, Comer released it later on.
This has been a common tactic in the past few years, implying increasing severity or an accretion of evidence by slowly releasing information that you already have in your possession. It’s aimed in part at earning new news coverage of the allegations — which, of course, the right-wing media universe provided with alacrity. But it’s also meant to build an increasing sense of culpability, as though this loan, despite mirroring the larger one from last week, needs to be considered as a new point of criticism.
Again, though, this new loan offers Comer the ability to draw a line to Chinese money. Fine. Let’s follow that line.
Documents reviewed by The Washington Post indicate that Joe Biden gave a $40,000 loan to his brother on July 28, 2017. (After he was out of office, it’s worth noting.) James Biden had been in business with Joe’s son Hunter for some time, work that included consulting for a Chinese energy company. (There’s no real question that these consulting contracts involved Hunter and James Biden intentionally leveraging their last name, but also no evidence that Joe Biden actually acted to benefit those clients.) On Aug. 8, 2017, according to Comer, the energy company paid $5 million to a corporate entity called Hudson West III. That same day, $400,000 went from Hudson West III to Owasco P.C., which Comer describes as “an entity owned and controlled by Hunter Biden.”
The Post, in looking at the corporate entities controlled or linked to Hunter Biden, had a less ominous descriptor for Owasco P.C.: “essentially Hunter Biden’s law firm.”
We continue with Comer’s timeline. On Aug. 14, Owasco P.C. sends $150,000 to Lion Hall Group, a consulting group (our assessment) associated with James Biden. Two weeks later, James’s wife Sara withdraws $50,000 from Lion Hall and puts it in their personal account. And, finally, on Sept. 3, 2017, the loan to Joe Biden is repaid. The check from Sara Biden says “loan repayment” on the check’s memo line, meaning that either the Bidens were playing the very long game on their duplicity or that it was, in fact, a loan repayment.
All of this movement of money is described by Comer to suggest that Joe Biden got money from China. Never mind that nearly a month passed between the receipt of that money and it getting to Biden. Never mind that we have no idea how much other money Owasco P.C. had or Lion Hall Group had that might have been the source for the transferred funds. (To use an extreme example: If I give Bill Gates $10 and he buys a burrito four weeks later, is it fair to say he used my money to buy the burrito?) And never mind, most of all, that there’s no indication that Joe Biden had any connection to China.
Comer tries to imply that he did, pointing to claims that Hunter Biden had tried to twist his Chinese partners’ arms to ensure payment in late July, including by suggesting that he was sitting with his father as he sent an angry text message. But there’s no evidence that Joe Biden was with Hunter Biden at the time, much less that he knew he was being deployed as a cudgel — and it isn’t even clear that the text message said what conservative media has claimed. (The claim originates with a summary of a message created by an unknown official.)
Eventually, Comer got to the crux of the matter.
“Even if this $40,000 check was a loan repayment from James Biden,” he said, “it still shows how Joe benefited from his family cashing in on his name — with money from China no less.”
I’m sorry, how is being repaid for a loan an example of Biden “benefiting?” If Bill Gates repays me that $10, I’m not suddenly giddy about my newfound fortune. I’m simply back to where I was in the first place! If Joe Biden’s big plan to secretly siphon cash from foreign actors was to loan out money to his brother before being repaid for the same amount, that’s a pretty robust indictment of Bidenomics indeed.
Where we end up is where we usually end up: Comer hyping a revelation that easily collapses under scrutiny. Comer offering that revelation in part to continue to position himself at the forefront of GOP efforts to impugn the president a year before the 2024 election.
“I’m once again asking for your help to defend my good name,” he wrote in a fundraising appeal sent out this week, “as I delve deeper into the belly of the corrupt beast that is ravaging our country: THE BIDEN CRIME FAMILY.”
If your pitch for money is that you’re the knight in (expensive; donate now!) shining armor battling a dangerous dragon, you have to convince people there’s a dragon.
This is not, I would offer, someone doing an “extraordinary job very methodically,” much less “outside the scope of politics.”