On Thursday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) granted his first cable-news network interview since securing his new role. He was not playing on “hard” mode, certainly; his interlocutor was Fox News’s generally pliable Sean Hannity.
Because Johnson isn’t running against Trump, the questioning was gentle, like a dad giving his son a job interview at the family business. But Hannity was able to steer Johnson to dig a little deeper into some of Hannity’s pet issues — such as his ongoing campaign against President Biden.
Hannity had been pressing Johnson on his views of Biden administration officials and, then, on using impeachment to remove them from their positions. Then he turned to the president — or, really, to the president’s son and brother, who made millions working as consultants, often with foreign business partners.
“They’ve discovered nine particular Biden family members have been paid,” Hannity said of Republican representatives including House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.). “And then you have the issue of Joe on tape admitting that he used our money, taxpayer money, to leverage $1 billion in loan guarantees, which was [Barack] Obama administration policy, to fire a prosecutor investigating his son.”
This is not what the facts show. Biden was “on tape” participating in a panel discussion where he described applying pressure on Ukraine to fire a corrupt prosecutor, an effort that was the shared goal of a number of international actors. The prosecutor was not investigating Biden’s son, nor was the prosecutor investigating the company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat.
Johnson didn’t point these errors out. Instead, he praised Hannity’s presentation as a “pretty good recitation of the facts.”
He praised Comer’s work, which has robustly documented that, in fact, members of Joe Biden’s family did receive money from business partners. He has not shown that Biden himself received any money — except in the form of a loan repaid to him by his brother. “We have the receipts on so much of this now,” Johnson said, which, again, is true. It’s just that “this” is not anything that demonstrably ties Biden to the payments.
Nevertheless, Johnson continued, “that’s the reason that we shifted into the impeachment inquiry stage on the president himself. Because if, in fact, all the evidence leads to where we believe it will, that’s very likely impeachable offenses.” He noted that one of the grounds for impeachment was bribery, which, he claimed, the Biden situation “looks and smells a lot like.”
“I know people are getting anxious and they’re getting restless and they just want somebody to be impeached,” he added later, no doubt aware that Hannity has been attempting to elevate that anxiousness among his viewers for months. “But that’s not — we don’t do that like the other team. We have to base it upon the evidence, and the evidence is coming together. We’ll see where it leads.”
That’s a pretty generous assessment of the process so far. Comer and his colleagues, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have repeatedly presented new allegations as proof of Biden’s wrongdoing — only to have them slowly be revealed as incomplete, misleading or unimportant. The loan repayment from Biden’s brother that Comer hyped last week is just such an example, presented as money flowing to Biden in proof of Comer’s long-standing allegations, before the nuance became obvious.
A better example is the testimony of Devon Archer, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s. In a deposition before Oversight investigators, Archer confirmed that Hunter Biden understood that he couldn’t leverage his father, that he didn’t know of any point at which the president aided the business and that the company for which they both worked saw the firing of the Ukrainian prosecutor as a setback. But Comer and his allies focused heavily on Archer’s testimony that Joe Biden occasionally would call his son and be put on speakerphone while his son was in meetings with business partners. There were some slightly sour cherries to be picked, so they were picked.
The Hannity interview was useful in one sense. Johnson’s predecessor as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), had approved the impeachment inquiry driven largely by Comer and Jordan. When McCarthy was ousted, it wasn’t clear what would happen. Johnson confirmed that it will move forward.
Or perhaps it won’t. In late September, the impeachment inquiry held a hearing involving a handful of witnesses, none of whom could provide any evidence impugning Joe Biden or his son, by their own admissions. The 2019 impeachment of Donald Trump — probably the target of Johnson’s sniffy disparagement of “the other team” — had released its final report about three weeks after its first hearing (which was followed by four more days of hearings). The Biden “impeachment inquiry” has held no more hearings in the month since the first one. And, by his own admission, Comer doesn’t want to.
“I don’t know that I want to hold any more hearings, to be honest with you,” Comer said while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill last week. He complained that it was hard to keep members present for hours on end, given that so many had other commitments. Instead, he said, he preferred depositions, which “you can do more with.”
There’s a truth buried in that, of course. You can do more with cherry-picked transcripts when your goal is to coat Joe Biden with insinuations and unproved allegations. Had Devon Archer’s deposition been a hearing, the final result would have been that viewers saw him acknowledge that Biden was not involved in his son’s work. There would have been multiple Democrats on hand to evaluate Archer’s testimony critically, something that does Comer (and, by extension, Johnson) no good. In 2019, the witnesses were generally deposed before offering live testimony with cross-examination from Republicans. Comer appears to prefer stripping out that last bit.
Johnson’s tenure as leader of his party’s caucus began with his allies shielding him from difficult questions about the 2020 election. He has little choice but to endorse Comer’s efforts, of course, but it does seem that he’s been shielded to some extent from just how thin the allegations concerning the president actually are. There’s a narrative, carefully tended by Hannity, Comer and others, that continually overstates the case against Biden or that pronounces him guilty by familial association. Perhaps more will emerge, but at the moment, the GOP’s push toward impeachment is not based on substantial evidence at all.
One would think that at some point, Comer would need to present evidence that withstands objective scrutiny — including by non-right-wing media outlets. The value of adjudicating these things in public hearings is that they are tested and challenged, making the surviving evidence stronger. We can be more confident that Biden’s role in the firing of the Ukrainian prosecutor was not corrupt because the assertion was evaluated during the 2019 impeachment.
But we know this isn’t really necessary. Johnson and Comer can remain surrounded by their allies, including Hannity, and pluck stuff out of depositions that hops over the low evidentiary bar they’ve all agreed to. After all, it’s what they’ve done so far.