December 15, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
House Republicans ‘will regret’ voting for impeachment inquiry
An interview with the peerless Jill Lawrence.
On Wednesday, the House Republicans did as expected. They passed a resolution formally authorizing an impeachment inquiry against the president. They did this not because they have any evidence of any wrongdoing by Joe Biden. This did this because they had the votes.
More precisely, they did this because Donald Trump wanted them to (which is why they had the votes). After all, the day that the House Democrats first impeached him – on charges that he extorted the leader of an ally country into a conspiracy to smear then-candidate Joe Biden – was the day President Biden’s impeachment was set in motion.
Biden’s impeachment, which is imminent, is part of Trump’s vengeance movement. Fortunately, it’s being seen that way. Stories about it seem to have two critical features. One, that there’s no evidence linking Joe Biden to Hunter Biden’s businesses. Two, that beneath all the innuendo and conspiracy theory is an obsessive, driving force – a disgraced former president who’s still stinging from being impeached twice.
Since these impeachment proceedings are going to be based on nothing, one could say nothing will come of them – meaninglessness has no meaning. But that overlooks something important about the House GOP’s smear campaign. It represents fundamental weakness.
“I had my reasons for going out on that punditry limb — namely history and the hope, not entirely unfounded, that voters would see this move for what it is: baseless, partisan, vengeful, and solely in the service of propping up Donald Trump.”
House Speaker Mike Johnson has suggested that the case against Biden is so strong that this week’s vote to formalize the impeachment inquiry was inevitable. But the case collapses whenever facts are presented, giving way to the truth. All of this is to slake Trump’s thirst for revenge. The House Republicans do not act on their own. They act according to Trump’s bidding. That’s based on another fundamental weakness, which is his desperate desire to seem invincible.
It may come to nothing, to be sure, but the White House and the House Democrats are unlikely to let it. They understand that the lack of any evidence linking Biden to any wrongdoing is ripe for blowback. Indeed, according to Jill Lawrence, the former opinion editor at USA Today and currently a frequent contributor to The Bulwark, the House Republicans, after this week’s unanimous vote, “will regret this.”
JS: As expected, the House Republicans voted to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry. You said that they will regret it. Why?
JL: I may regret saying that! But I had my reasons for going out on that punditry limb — namely history and the hope, not entirely unfounded, that voters would see this move for what it is: baseless, partisan, vengeful, and solely in the service of propping up Donald Trump.
Back in 1998, House Republicans achieved the rare feat of losing seats in a midterm election amid impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. The backlash against them was that intense, and they hadn’t even voted yet on whether to impeach Clinton.
They did approve two articles of impeachment in December 1998, and the irony is that in this case, the charges were rooted in reality. One accused Clinton of perjurious testimony to a grand jury looking into his extramarital affair with a White House intern, the other of obstructing an investigation to hide that affair. This was reprehensible personal behavior. But did it rise to high crimes and misdemeanors? Most voters considered the impeachment an overreach, and the Senate voted in January 1999 to acquit.
Clinton was wildly popular at the time, possibly because the economy was booming and – or because he was perceived as unjustly attacked. Both of those factors may be in play now if voters perceive Joe Biden as under unfair attack, or the healthy economy continues to improve in ways people can’t help but notice.
That’s on top of other difficult dynamics for Republicans. Their state abortion bans are fueling bipartisan voter opposition and high turnout to protect abortion rights. Trump’s threat to democracy is also a proven turnout driver and election loser, and the nothingburger Biden “impeachment” may end up drawing an unwelcome contrast.
I’d also add that in 1998-1999, House Republicans who metaphorically stoned Clinton did not consider their own glass houses. Speaker Newt Gingrich was having an extramarital affair during the impeachment saga, and resigned after the GOP lost the midterms. His successor, Speaker-elect Bob Livingston, also was cheating and also resigned from Congress. The man who finally got the job, Denny Hastert, was later convicted in connection with molesting student wrestlers when he was a coach.
And in 2021, a year before independent counsel Ken Starr died, Judi Hershman said she’d had an affair in 2009 with Starr, whose real estate investigation of the Clintons turned into a massive dig into the president’s personal life, producing titillating sexual details and allegations that led to impeachment.
I mention this because the Associated Press this week published a piece on House Oversight chairman James Comer’s family finances, headlined “The Republican leading the probe of Hunter Biden has his own shell company and complicated friends.” The AP said its findings risk “undercutting the force of some of Comer’s central arguments in his impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden.”
I cannot and will not say for sure how any of this will turn out (which only underscores the risks of impulse posts on social media). But personally I’d rather be Biden than Trump at this point.
JS: Former House Speaker Paul Ryan seemed to suggest in a recent interview that some Republicans now regret not having voted to impeach/remove Trump after the J6 insurrection. What do you think?
JL: He says some people have told him that, and that tracks with what I’d expect. There was the somewhat logical assumption that Trump’s election lies, schemes and January 6 role would be the end of his public life, and Republicans could safely vote against impeachment or conviction in order to protect their families from threats, and safeguard their careers as well.
I have no doubt they harbor many regrets now. Seven Senate Republicans voted to convict Trump, and while I can’t prove this, I bet Mitch McConnell could have lined up the 10 more needed to convict Trump in the January 6 impeachment trial, thereby barring him from public office for life. Instead, he himself voted to acquit for what I consider spurious reasons, and expressed hope the courts would hold Trump accountable. But we all know that the legal process is slow, Trump so far has been a better escape artist than Houdini, and he named one-third of the arbiters on the Supreme Court.
JS: There seems to be a growing sentiment among liberals and Democrats that the House Republicans have already made Trump’s impeachments meaningless. Do you sense that? What’s your response?
JL: I would really push back on the idea that Trump’s impeachments have been made meaningless. The election subversion scheme that went on for months (and will never die as long as it is useful to Trump, his allies and his fundraising) was an attack on the most fundamental, crucial function of US democracy. It left a legacy of deaths, destruction and delusion, and human wreckage in the form of convictions, prison time, and for some Capitol protectors, injuries that ended their law enforcement careers. And Trump’s infamously “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky still reverberates, from disputes over military aid to Ukraine to the Biden “impeachment” reviving Ukraine smears and debunked conspiracies.
There is plenty of ammunition for Democrats if they care to use it, including House Speaker Mike Johnson’s important role in attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and the “family finances” of Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Trump himself during and just after the Trump administration.
Beyond that, Democratic admakers and convention planners have plenty of human stories they can tell. There’s tremendous power in real people talking about real consequences, whether it’s women and girls hurt by abortion bans, cops traumatized and wounded on January 6, the Georgia election workers terrorized by racists after Trump and Rudy Giuliani falsely and repeatedly insisted they were committing fraud. The most effective ad this year may have been Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s campaign ad in which a young woman talks about being raped by her stepfather.
JS: Some polls suggest that if Trump is convicted, support even among loyal Republicans will fall. I’m skeptical. What do you think?
JL: I am skeptical that Trump’s most devoted followers will change their minds, but encouraged that there are independents and potentially soft Trump supporters within the GOP who might be affected by a conviction. A solid 57 percent majority of all voters said this month that Trump should be kept off the ballot if he’s convicted in one of the four criminal cases against him.
An earlier poll in August suggested Trump’s legal troubles could have a significant impact among Republicans. Nearly half said they wouldn’t vote for him if he were convicted before Election Day, and that rose to 52 percent if he were in prison. Whether that still holds is unknowable, but it’s got to be why Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are still in the nomination race and competing hard.
I do think, and have written, that if Jack Smith manages to try and win at least one federal case before the election, the saturation coverage will have huge impact. The January 6 case is historic and unprecedented, but so is the Mar-a-Lago case that would expose and hammer home the national security threat Trump poses to America and its allies.
JS: Hardest question: Trump is already above the law. What now?
JL: Now we wait, and root for Jack Smith, Tanya Chutkan, Fani Willis and the appellate judges responsible for making sure Aileen Cannon does not veer off-road. We try to have faith in the Supreme Court. And if all else fails, or takes too long to succeed, we try to have faith in voters.
Eventually, when this is all over, we will have a lot of work to do to Trump-proof our laws for centuries to come. We can hope Trump presents a one-time existential crisis, but we can’t count on it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.