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Biden impeachment push nears end of runway — with no signs of takeoff

Two things happened Tuesday morning that provide a useful lens into the effort by House Republicans to construct a case for impeaching President Biden.

The less-splashy occurrence was an interview that Rep. Lisa C. McClain (R-Mich.) provided to Fox Business. McClain sits on the House Oversight Committee, the body that has taken the lead on much of the impeachment effort. Asked how much evidence the committee had accrued, McClain was forced into an embarrassing admission.

“Have you been able to identify any actual policy changes that Joe Biden made as a result of getting money from China?” the host asked.

“The short answer is no,” McClain replied. She went on to suggest that this was “what we’re trying to get to right now,” by requesting copies of classified documents that were found last year in an office Biden once used or at his home.

By itself, this is fairly anodyne. A media personality asking a question; a legislator answering it. But none of this can be extricated from the broader context of who was asking and what McClain’s answer meant. Nor can the interview itself be considered outside of the overarching impeachment probe, such as it is — including the splashier development: an offer by Joe Biden’s son Hunter to answer committee questions publicly next month.

An offer that Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) quickly rejected.

But let’s switch back to Fox Business for a moment. The interview in which McClain admitted that this one particular line of argument presented by her colleagues had borne no new fruit was not simply one in which an impartial observer was evaluating the state of play. The interviewer was, instead, Maria Bartiromo, who has spent the past three-plus years obliterating her once-solid reputation as a serious journalist.

It was Bartiromo who, in the weeks before the 2020 election, gave Donald Trump an hour to make unsupported, untrue claims about the threat of election fraud. It was Bartiromo who, in the days after the election, gave airtime to some of the wildest claims of fraud claims. It was Bartiromo about whom, in that same period, a senior Fox executive was talking when he referred in a text message to a host that “has gop conspiracy theorists in her ear and they use her for their message sometimes.”

It was also Bartiromo who earlier this year began accepting Comer’s claims about Biden with credulity. It was Bartiromo to whom Comer admitted that he’d lost track of an informant, although it was later revealed that he apparently accidentally had been referring to someone else. It has been Bartiromo who has continuously treated as serious the baseless allegations presented by Comer and his allies.

Consider the lead-in to Bartiromo’s question to McClain. It wasn’t just about “identifying policy changes” effected by the Biden administration — although, on Bartiromo’s show in May, Comer alleged without offering evidence that Biden had changed administration policy to suspiciously benefit China. Instead, Bartiromo stated that “witness testimony [is] all indicating or suggesting that there could be some serious crime here like bribery or money laundering.”

This is flatly untrue. There are many insinuations, often initiated by Comer or House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), that such things occurred. But those allegations, such as the wafer-thin one about a Ukrainian national handing over $5 million, have not accrued any evidence to support them. House Republicans have taken a great deal of testimony from people close to Joe and Hunter Biden, but that testimony has often severely undercut the mainline argument Republicans are making about Joe Biden’s actively and knowingly aiding his son’s and brother’s business ventures.

Consider this graphic, shown as Bartiromo was interviewing McClain.

Those $20 million in payments? None to Joe Biden and most of it not even going to Hunter or James Biden, the president’s brother — as has been known for a long time.

The “messages” and the dinner? The former refers to summaries of 2017 WhatsApp messages in which Hunter Biden claimed to have his father — who held no elective office at the time — present while pressing business partners, although there’s no evidence Joe Biden was actually there or knew about the message. The latter refers to a dinner at which both Joe Biden and Hunter’s partners were present, although sworn testimony indicates that there was no discussion of business.

Republicans have robustly shown that Hunter Biden intended and attempted to leverage his last name to benefit his business, implying that he could get his father to effect change. But they have also, with much less fanfare, shown that Hunter Biden admitted privately that this was false, and they have shown no evidence that it wasn’t.

Then there’s “whistleblower testimony,” which refers to allegations that the Biden administration (and the Trump administration) went easy on Hunter while investigating possible criminal activity. Washington Post investigations into the question reveal a much more complicated and uncertain picture.

But that is it. That’s the “evidence” against Joe Biden, per Bartiromo’s show: payments not to Joe Biden, actions not by Joe Biden and claims about influence that have been robustly challenged and that predate Biden’s presidency.

Importantly, no aspect of that evidence emerged as a result of the “impeachment inquiry” launched by then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in September. While McCarthy’s replacement, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), touted the progress made during that probe, nothing that sits at the center of what Republicans are hyping as potentially impeachable is a function of recent investigatory work. (Comer did discover that James Biden repaid a loan his brother made to him, and Comer did his best to make that into something, but it didn’t take.)

This is why we get things like this question about China. Biden’s possession of documents with classification markings became part of a federal investigation last year after the federal probe of Trump for a more expansive example of such activity became public. Trump and his allies tried to suggest that because Biden had once had an office in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, this somehow suggested that Chinese actors were granted access to the documents. It’s a reach of world-historical proportions but, as McClain shows, it lets them keep one fishing line in the water. Maybe there will be a bite!

Of course, this has been true from the outset: Maybe all of these lines coming from this one rickety boat — Comer at the helm, Jordan as boatswain — will actually reel in something. Still possible, certainly. But mostly what has happened is that Comer will pull out an old boot and announce that he has discovered a rare example of the dangerous bootfish. It gets thrown onto a pile of tires, cans and other garbage that Jordan tells Fox News is the largest haul by weight in the history of fishing.

It’s not clear how much longer this is sustainable. Jordan and others have suggested the impeachment inquiry will complete its work (such as it is) by January. Things are reaching a make-or-break point, and Republicans will have to decide whether to impeach with what they have — which isn’t much — or put forth an excuse for why they shouldn’t do so. It’s very possible that, over the next few weeks, we’ll hear voices such as Fox News’s Sean Hannity (also an eager promoter of the fishing trip) start giving cover to House Republicans to step back from the edge. Or maybe so much energy has been poured into this thing that they’ll just have to go over the edge, despite skepticism within their narrow majority.

We have signs that Comer is wary. On Tuesday morning, Hunter Biden attorney Abbe Lowell offered to present his client for public testimony on Dec. 13 in response to a subpoena from the Oversight Committee. Lowell’s letter was sharply worded, noting Comer’s misrepresentations about his client and the committee’s failure to substantiate its claims. He noted that Comer’s putative interest in rooting out familial corruption didn’t extend to Trump’s family — a pointed comment, given that Lowell was once Jared Kushner’s lawyer.

In a statement, Comer declined to have Biden testify during an open hearing in two weeks.

“Our lawfully issued subpoena to Hunter Biden requires him to appear for a deposition on December 13,” the statement read. “We expect full cooperation with our subpoena for a deposition but also agree that Hunter Biden should have opportunity to testify in a public setting at a future date.”

That latter offer is, notably, not a hearing. There has been one public hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry — and only one. It was a debacle, introducing no new evidence but offering many opportunities for Democrats to point out the lack of evidence to undergird the inquiry.

Speaking to reporters last month, Comer said, “I don’t know that I want to hold any more hearings, to be honest with you,” claiming that this was because hearings took so much time.

But it is also the case that Comer and his allies have cherry-picked claims from closed-door depositions (like that of Hunter Biden’s former partner Devon Archer) to bolster their case even while other parts of the same interviews undercut their assertions. (“What the Republicans fear most is sunlight and the truth,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), the top Democrat on Oversight, said in a statement to The Post on Tuesday, responding to Comer.)

The situation, then, is this: Republicans pledged to investigate Biden and have spent months doing so. They amplified dubious, debunked or diaphanous claims as incriminating but have failed to construct a credible case against the president. Right-wing media, eager for retribution after Trump’s two impeachments, kept pushing for a formal impeachment. Right-wing legislators complied, applying leverage on McCarthy to make it happen. The probe then stalled.

It remains possible that Biden did something unethical or illegal and that one of those lines from the fishing boat will reel in a marlin. At this moment, though, it seems obvious that Comer and Jordan are facing the prospect of having to sit down at the dinner table and convince themselves that, actually, a boot makes a very good meal.

The good news is that, according to Fox Business reporting, it does.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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