When the Democratic majority in the House held the first public hearing in its 2019 impeachment inquiry targeting President Trump, it heard testimony from members of Trump’s administration who could speak to the central allegation: that the president had sought to coerce Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden. The inquiry had already conducted a number of interviews that fleshed out the allegation, an allegation that was first raised in an anonymous whistleblower complaint that the administration tried to shield from congressional committees.
The first hearing, held in November 2019, featured testimony from the country’s top diplomat to Ukraine, who said he’d overheard conversations in which Trump mentioned investigations to another official. Another witness, a senior member of the State Department, described efforts by Trump allies to “gin up politically motivated investigations.”
The testimony spoke directly to the issue at hand and came from nonpartisan government staffers with proximity to what was underway. This is not how the impeachment investigation into President Biden is beginning.
That inquiry kicks off this week with a Thursday hearing before the House Oversight Committee, which is chaired by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.). The hearing’s aim is not to present evidence that bolsters the central allegation — in part because it’s not clear what the central allegation is. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) public announcement about the inquiry included a half-dozen assertions of potentially dubious activity, several of which involved only Biden’s son Hunter and one of which was explicitly false.
So the first hearing in the Biden inquiry will instead attempt to establish the rationale for the inquiry itself. That’s the Oversight Committee’s presentation, not mine; the hearing is titled, “The Basis for an Impeachment Inquiry of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.”
It will feature testimony not from witnesses who might present evidence of wrongdoing but, instead, from three individuals who have previously been engaged to make the public case that Biden might have done something wrong.
There’s Bruce Dubinsky, an accountant who appeared on Fox News last month to suggest that “shell companies” used by Hunter Biden and his business partners were themselves suggestive of wrongdoing. Such companies, he said, are “used in nefarious ways to either launder money or hide a transaction.”
The Washington Post has investigated the companies to which payments were made, finding that most had clear, legitimate purposes despite the continued insinuations from Comer.
Another witness is Eileen O’Connor, a member of Donald Trump’s 2016 transition team who in June wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal criticizing the plea deal offered to Hunter Biden centered on alleged tax evasion. Her argument relied on some now-disputed claims from IRS whistleblowers; the plea agreement eventually fell apart.
The third witness is law professor Jonathan Turley, a frequent voice on Fox News and in other right-wing media outlets. Like Dubinsky and O’Connor, he’s established his belief that Joe Biden is intertwined in something nefarious but, like the others, it’s not clear that he has any evidence to that effect.
But Comer’s past willingness to exaggerate and overhype his committee’s work does not bode well for the inquiry. He’s presented confused allegations about missing informants, misrepresented timelines to impugn the president, moved the goal posts repeatedly in accusing Biden of taking a bribe, alleged secret plots based on easily explained emails and repeated already disproven allegations. He is, in short, not a reliable voice of criticism against the president.
He demonstrated that again on Tuesday. His committee has been working for months to tie Hunter Biden’s business activity to President Biden, without success. Until, that is, they stumbled onto something offered up as a smoking gun: money sent by Hunter Biden’s Chinese business partners in mid-2019 that listed Joe Biden’s house as the receiving address! Comer posted on social media about it with the requisite siren emojis; Fox News filed a story.
But even in that story, an asterisk was presented: Hunter Biden had long used his father’s Delaware address as his own, particularly in the 2018-2019 time frame. Comer himself had been quick to point out that Hunter Biden used the address as his own when trying to imply that maybe the president’s son was intertwined with the discovery of documents marked as classified in Joe Biden’s garage. In that period, Hunter Biden was actively abusing alcohol and illegal drugs; in his memoir, he describes spending the early months of 2019 in various Los Angeles area hotels. In 2018, he’d used his father’s address on his driver’s license.
To CNN, Hunter Biden’s attorney made this exact argument.
“This was a documented loan (not a distribution or payout) that was wired from a private individual to his new bank account which listed the address on his driver’s license, his parents’ address, because it was his only permanent address at the time,” Abbe Lowell said in a statement.
A source who has seen the documentation of the payments but wasn’t authorized to speak publicly confirmed that the payments were wire transactions and not checks. This means the transfer of money was between two financial institutions — the recipient address was not in any way determinative: the destination was the bank, not a house. And the listed beneficiary for the recipient account, according to the documentation? Robert Hunter Biden.
In the committee’s press release, Comer tried to imply that Joe Biden was intimately involved in Hunter Biden’s relationship with his Chinese business partners. He noted that Hunter’s former partner Devon Archer offered testimony that Joe Biden “wrote college recommendation letters for his children.” What Archer actually testified was that Hunter did get his father to write a recommendation for the man’s daughter — but when asked if Joe Biden had taken action to benefit the man’s company, Archer stated flatly that he hadn’t.
This latest example of Comer getting out over his skis will not serve as a disincentive, of course. He’s seen repeatedly that his false claims and exaggerations are ignored by his ideological allies in the right-wing media, where the unassailable narrative of Biden’s obvious culpability is both assumed and defended relentlessly. Instead of moving forward with new caution given the presumed solemnity of potentially impeaching a president, he’s just doing the same thing under a new banner. Like putting a sign in the window of a McDonald’s claiming that it has a Michelin star. Still the same food and atmosphere.
It is important to note that there may still emerge new, indisputable evidence showing that Joe Biden was directly involved in his son’s business in some way, or that he leveraged his authority to benefit his kid. Just because you cry wolf doesn’t mean a wolf won’t show up.
But it might be useful to have someone else be the guy telling the public that a wolf has been sighted.