There’s an episode of The Office – at this point our only true cross-generational cultural touchstone – in which Michael Scott, the Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin paper company, tries to allay some bad news that his staff has received about their health care plans. Sensing the sagging morale, Michael announces that he’s going to deliver a very special surprise, by the end of the day.
Michael wastes the next several hours desperately casting about for some way to make good on his empty, ill-conceived promise. At one point, he returns to the office bearing plastic bags filled with generic, individually wrapped ice cream sandwiches. He tries to hype up his employees – Ice cream sandwiches, ahhhh! – but they’re not having it. Stanley (from accounting) confronts Michael directly: “This isn’t the big surprise, is it?” Realizing his idea is a dud, Michael backtracks. No, no, the surprise is still coming, he replies, visibly despondent.
Finally, with the clock approaching quitting time, Michael stands in front of the expectant (but increasingly dubious) Dunder Mifflin staffers. He’s got nothing. Slowly, the employees file past Michael, shaking their heads, disappointed but not surprised at his utter failure to deliver on his grandiose promise.
If Congress were Dunder Mifflin – and that might be a substantial upgrade at this point – then the ongoing quest to impeach President Joe Biden is looking more and more like ice cream sandwiches. House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer and other House Republicans have promised to deliver evidence not merely justifying but compelling Joe Biden’s impeachment. Instead they’ve offered a mishmash of flimsy accusations, strung together with limp conjecture. The evidence isn’t remotely strong enough, and there’s no indication that it’ll get any better.
Regular readers of this column know that I’m no Hunter Biden apologist. The man’s a manipulator, a profiteer, and an opportunist, and he might well be a criminal too. He currently faces a federal indictment on firearms charges – which are, in fairness, shaky at best – and an ongoing tax investigation, which seems more ominous at the moment. I don’t buy the standard apologist mantra: But he was an addict and his family loves him. Those things certainly are true, and nice. But they neither explain nor excuse Hunter Biden’s deliberate, years-long effort to cash in on his family’s political clout by taking millions of dollars from foreign nationals for “jobs” he was entirely unqualified to do.
Now Hunter Biden will face consequences in criminal court. That’s as it should be. Maybe he’ll see more charges, maybe not. (By the way: “influence peddling,” though offensive and corrosive to our democracy, is simply not a crime. Call Congress if you object.) Maybe he’ll beat his case, or perhaps not. I’ll willingly accept whatever outcome the criminal justice process yields.
The problem for Comer and his crew is that Congress can’t impeach Hunter Biden. And there’s simply no meaningful evidence linking the actual current President to criminality or corruption by his son.
But oh, Comer and some of his colleagues say, this is what an impeachment inquiry is for – so we can find out. I’m all for finding out; if Joe Biden is in fact involved in Hunter’s shady activity, I absolutely want to know about it. But Republicans have now controlled the House for a year and, in that time, they’ve come up with jack squat.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Comer’s own Republican colleagues. Firebrand Representative Darrell Issa conceded that, “The actual participation by the vice president and now president – that still has to be discovered and or nailed down.” “We don’t have the evidence now, but we may find it later,” said Representative Mike McCaul. Representative Dave Joyce noted, “You hear a lot of rumor and innuendo… but that’s not fact to me. As a former prosecutor, I think there has to be facts, and I think there has to be due process that we follow, and I’ve not seen any of that.” Again, folks: these are House Republicans.
Here’s a useful point of reference. In 2019, the House Intelligence Committee initiated an impeachment inquiry that eventually resulted in Trump’s first impeachment, for trying to shake down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At this point in the proceedings – the same procedural point where Comer stands now – the House gave us compelling evidence including the White House transcript of the damning phone call, plus on-point testimony from witnesses including Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador Fiona Hill, Ambassador Bill Taylor, and others. Here, Comer and company offer up evidence that Hunter repaid his father a few grand on a car loan.
Comer is now in full-on panic mode. He subpoenaed Hunter Biden, demanding a closed-door deposition – but Biden promptly called Comer’s bluff, agreeing to testify live, on camera, for the world to see. Comer immediately folded and said he’d accept Biden’s testimony but only in secret, not in public. Gee, who’s got something to hide here? Comer, in full meltdown mode, has threatened to hold Hunter Biden in contempt of Congress. Let me give away the ending on this one: Even if Congress does vote for contempt, there’s a zero-point-zero percent chance that DOJ chooses to criminally prosecute a contempt case against a person who volunteered to testify, in public.
I’m not so sure House Republicans have thought this all the way through. (I’m being kind with that phrasing.) I recently was chatting with a moderate House Republican who had reservations about an impeachment inquiry but ultimately fell back on a position of, essentially, let them take a look and, if they don’t find anything, no harm, no foul. I responded that it seemed that once Comer and the Gang started down this path, it would be politically difficult or impossible for him to turn back. If Comer begins an impeachment inquiry, I posited, and then does not actually impeach, Biden will (rightly) claim that Republicans tried to string him up but couldn’t find anything. So Comer has played himself into a position where he almost has to recommend impeachment, if for no other reason than to save face. The Republican House member’s response was, essentially, “Hmmmm, yeah, that actually sounds right.”
Another (former) House Republican, Adam Kinzinger, put it this way to me: “Now, they have to impeach.” (Kinzinger, you’ll not be surprised to learn, also thinks this is a bogus, doomed sideshow.) Indeed, Comer started from a position of political posturing, and he’s disingenuously ramped up his rhetoric as the investigation has flatlined.
We have a long and varied history of presidential impeachment investigations in this country. If I had to boil down the legacy of each to its essence in a single phrase: Andrew Johnson (technical and baffling), Richard Nixon (necessary), Bill Clinton (sordid but debatable), Trump on Ukraine (well-justified), Trump for January 6 (are you freaking kidding me, how does he not get convicted?). An impeachment of Joe Biden, barring some new blockbuster evidence that goes way beyond ice cream sandwiches, is in line to become the most ridiculous and nakedly political in American history.
Update: Those potential tax charges that we called “ominous” above just landed last night. Ominous indeed.