Sep 13, 2023

Republicans launch Biden impeachment inquiry.

Image: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America
Image: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Plus, a question about the David Weiss special counsel.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Republicans launch an impeachment inquiry into Biden. Plus, a reader question about David Weiss's appointment and if it broke the law.

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Quick hits.

  1. The Consumer Price Index rose 3.7% from a year ago, above expectations of 3.6% and driven mostly by a jump in gas prices. (The numbers)
  2. Authorities in Pennsylvania have captured Danelo Cavalcante, the convicted murderer who escaped from prison and evaded a manhunt for over two weeks. (The capture)
  3. An estimated 5,300 people have reportedly died in Libya and at least 10,000 more are missing after floods overwhelmed dams. (The floods)
  4. Five former police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, were indicted on federal civil rights charges over the January death of Tyre Nichols. (The arrests)
  5. Vladimir Putin said Russia will help North Korea launch satellites and Kim Jong Un said Russia had its full backing in their “sacred struggle” against the West. (The meeting)

Today's topic.

The Biden impeachment inquiry. On Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy opened a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, pushing forward GOP efforts to find evidence of wrongdoing as the 2024 presidential election season kicks into gear.

Republicans have been investigating whether then-Vice President Biden benefited from overseas business dealings his son Hunter participated in. So far, little evidence has emerged showing the president received any direct benefit from those affairs, or that he used his government authority to help his son. A formal impeachment inquiry will give the House more tools to investigate Biden, including enforcement of subpoenas and an increased likelihood of access to grand jury materials.

During an investigation into Hunter, Congress obtained an FD-1023 document, which is used by FBI agents to record unverified accounts from anonymous whistleblowers. In that document, a confidential FBI source alleged President Biden received payments from Ukrainian energy firm Burisma during his tenure as vice president. The source details secondhand allegations that Burisma's CEO and founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, thought having Hunter on its board would insulate the company from investigation, and that Zlochevsky sent millions of dollars to Hunter and then-Vice President Joe Biden. 

Republicans have also cited President Biden's own words as cause for the inquiry, claiming he lied to the public about his involvement with Hunter's business dealings. On the campaign trail, Biden and his campaign denied his son ever made any money from China, or that Biden ever met any of Hunter's business associates in Ukraine. Both of those claims were false, according to sworn testimony from Hunter Biden and one of his business partners, Devon Archer.

McCarthy alleges Republicans “have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct. Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.”

White House spokesman Ian Sams called the inquiry "extreme politics at its worst" and said Republicans have "turned up no evidence of wrongdoing."

McCarthy had previously promised that he would hold a full House vote to establish any formal impeachment inquiry, but instead pushed forward without one, a sign he may not have had the votes. Some GOP lawmakers had been critical of a vote, arguing that it would needlessly divide the party. In 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened an impeachment probe into President Donald Trump without a vote, a move that was criticized by many Republicans. Later, she held a vote on public portions of the impeachment inquiry, which passed almost entirely on party lines.

“Nancy Pelosi has changed the rules of the House. We’re just following through,” McCarthy said. "I warned her not to do it that way in the process, and that's what she did, so that's what we do."

Meanwhile, there are early signs that McCarthy's approval of the inquiry may not satiate some more conservative members of his party, who negotiated a stipulation when initially supporting McCarthy as Speaker that allows any one member to call for a snap vote to remove him from the post. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) spoke shortly after the inquiry was announced threatening to remove McCarthy for a spending agreement made with President Biden.

"I rise today to serve notice, Mr. Speaker, that you are out of compliance with the agreement that allowed you to assume this role," Gaetz said. "The path forward for the House of Representatives is to either bring you into total, immediate compliance or remove you."

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left to the impeachment inquiry, and then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are convinced Biden has committed impeachable offenses, though they are divided on whether an official inquiry is wise, and some concede the evidence is still thin.
  • Some argue that the inquiry is the right move, and if done properly could be a great way to uncover Biden's corruption.
  • Others suggest that Biden's actions do not rise to an impeachable offense, and this move will backfire politically.

The New York Post editorial board said opening an impeachment inquiry is a "no-brainer."

"In eight months, House GOP probes have proven that Joe was in close cahoots with Hunter’s enterprises: He broke bread with Hunter’s clients, jumped on calls with them, even wrote at least one college recommendation," the board said. "And, when Hunter’s Burisma paymasters demanded rescue from a Ukrainian corruption investigation, Joe went to Ukraine and blackmailed the government to fire that prosecutor — threatening to withhold $1 billion in US aid, even though it now seems the rest of the Obama administration still had him down as a good guy. Yes, details need to be pinned down in all that: Republicans shouldn’t rush to actual impeachment without a full investigation (even though Democrats did rush to impeach then-President Donald Trump over his Ukraine call threatening to delay an aid payment).

"First, the American public needs to know what’s in the thousands of pseudonym emails Joe was then sending, as well as exactly where all the millions funneled through Hunter’s dozens of shell companies came from and went to. Did Joe benefit directly, or was it just the rest of his family?" the board asked. "Find out exactly why US Attorney David Weiss meekly let the statute of limitations pass when it came to prosecuting Hunter’s worst apparent crimes, and how he came this close to granting the First Son immunity from all future prosecution following from his investigations."

In The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn said the inquiry is justified — especially if it is done right.

“Normally, Republicans might defer to law enforcement. But a politicized Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have squandered the public’s trust," McGurn said. "It may turn out that Joe Biden committed no crime. But even if he never received a nickel from his son’s businesses, his cooperation in Hunter’s selling of the Biden brand was corrupt. Ditto for President Biden’s Justice Department, which repeatedly sabotaged the federal investigation into Hunter... If done judiciously, an impeachment inquiry would be a road back from the way Nancy Pelosi stacked every procedural deck and cut every congressional corner to get Mr. Trump.

"Mrs. Pelosi announced the first Trump impeachment inquiry all by herself, holding a vote after it was already under way, and then proceeded with closed-door testimony and limits on defense witnesses. In the second impeachment, she rushed a vote on impeachment without hearings or an opportunity for the president to present a defense. Speaker McCarthy has signaled that things will be different this time around," McGurn wrote. "An actual impeachment will then depend on persuading the full House that the evidence supports it. Given Mr. McCarthy’s slim majority, that might be a hard sell to nervous GOP moderates—especially those in districts Mr. Biden carried in 2020."

In the Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer said it would be "monumentally stupid" for House Republicans to rush an impeachment inquiry into Biden.

"To be clear, the mistake would be of both substance and politics. The former ought to be more important, but it is the latter consideration that should convince most Republican politicians not to slake their political bloodlust so quickly in this way," Hillyer wrote. "House Republicans (and some Senate Republicans) already are doing a good job, in their legitimate oversight capacity, of exposing the Biden family’s ethical problems. They need no impeachment inquiry to keep doing so... They simultaneously make the political error of looking overeager for a political scalp rather than reluctantly carrying out a sobering and solemn task, for which there is no other alternative, to serve the public weal.

"To put it plainly, the public is sick of and disgusted with politicized death matches. What most of the public sees as tit-for-tat impeachments is exactly what majorities loathe about today’s politics. The public has no problem with exposing graft or with holding the other side’s feet to the fire. But to threaten to kick a president from office is to threaten massive political upheaval of a sort that should be reserved for only rare and serious offenses," Hillyer said. Further, "the political reality is that the side that threatens impeachment almost never gains politically from its efforts and often loses big time."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is unified in their opposition to the impeachment inquiry and very critical of McCarthy's motives.
  • Some say he is being held hostage by the extreme wing of his party.
  • Others say this impeachment inquiry does not meet the standard of past impeachments.

In The Daily Beast, Eleanor Clift said the impeachment inquiry shows McCarthy is a "hostage in his own House."

"The House Speaker is living up to his last name, reviving a 21st century McCarthyism with lots of ominous sounding allegations about bank records and shell corporations delivered with a somber tone—but without any evidence to back up the alarming words," Clift said. "He looks California cool under fire, but launching an impeachment inquiry is a desperation measure to keep the hostage takers in his own caucus from taking away his power. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made his deal with the devil when he ceded sufficient clout to the rightest of the right-wing crazies to gain their votes after 15 humiliating ballots.

"That bill comes due now as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the Queen of the Extremists, puts down her marker: She would not vote to fund the government without an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden," Clift notes. "[McCarthy’s] job is to muster majorities for spending bills that will keep the government open beyond the Sept. 30 deadline. He has such a narrow margin that he can’t lose more than three or four votes, and MTG speaks for at least a dozen hardliners." Now, he has "no choice but to do her bidding if he wants to keep his job."

In Newsweek, David Faris mocked the "pointless impeachment probe." 

"Lacking support for impeachment from his own caucus, McCarthy won't even hold a vote of the full House of Representatives before plowing ahead with what will be a doomed quest that will nevertheless further degrade the legitimacy of our political institutions," Faris said. "There are times when you almost feel sorry for McCarthy. The erstwhile fiscal conservative 'young gun' who went to DC to slash entitlements and make rich people richer has somehow become the leader of a group of wild-eyed radicals who are so far down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and what-aboutism that they think they are going to impeach President Biden."

"As for President Biden's alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, Republicans will surely get back to you at some point about that. Something mumblemumble Burisma China laptop cocaine. It doesn't need to make any sense because this isn't about Joe Biden or Hunter Biden. It's about former President Donald Trump. Democrats impeached him twice, and deservedly so. According to the rules of contemporary Republican politics, that means the next Democratic president must be impeached, whether he deserves it or not."

In The Washington Post, Philip Bump argued that Nixon, Clinton, and Trump all faced hard evidence of serious wrongdoing, but Biden does not.

"There remains no concrete evidence that Joe Biden was engaged in any illegal activity, particularly while serving as president. For the most part, the Republican effort focuses on Hunter Biden and his business activity," Bump wrote. "Comer and Jordan have dug deep into Hunter Biden’s background, bank accounts and communications and have presented an argument that Hunter Biden leveraged his last name to build out his consulting business. But the House Republicans’ probes have uncovered more refutations than evidence of the idea that the president was involved in his son’s business activities.

"We are asked to believe that Archer’s testimony that Joe Biden occasionally was put on speakerphone for non-business-related conversations during meetings is more incriminating than Archer’s sworn denial that Biden was at all involved in Hunter Biden’s business or that he applied any of his power to the benefit of Hunter’s business partners," Bump said. "We’re also asked to believe the attestations of Comer and Jordan, both of whom have obviously misrepresented what they’ve learned in interviews. But this is the point: The inquiry would maybe gin up the evidence on which impeachment could be predicated... Instead of clarifying existing allegations, Republicans are trying to generate some."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • There is plenty about Hunter and the Bidens worth investigating, but an impeachment inquiry here still seems premature.
  • We keep lowering the evidentiary standard for impeachments.
  • Ultimately, McCarthy seems to be out over his skis, and impeaching Biden is very unlikely.

I think McCarthy is out over his skis.

Since impeachments are inherently political, there is good reason to reference the political history here. However different their misconduct, Nixon and Clinton both faced substantial evidence that prompted impeachment inquiries. Trump's first impeachment had much less evidentiary backing than any that had come before: The inquiry was prompted by a single whistleblower complaint, supported by a few news articles that suggested Trump was pressuring Ukraine's president to investigate Biden while dangling U.S. military support.

As I said in response to a reader question recently, the legitimacy of Trump’s first impeachment inquiry becomes even more tenuous if investigating Biden proves to be a worthy endeavor. As McCarthy is now threatening to do, Nancy Pelosi launched that inquiry without a formal House vote. And next to the evidence preceding Nixon’s and Clinton’s impeachments, the evidence against Trump was comparatively thin, though his alleged misconduct was serious. And next to the evidence preceding Trump’s impeachment, the evidence of Biden corruptly leveraging his vice presidency (remember, this is not about anything Biden has done as president) is even thinner. So, once again, we're moving in the wrong direction on evidentiary standards to launch impeachment inquiries.

With Trump, we had a recorded phone call and a formal whistleblower complaint (from a known whistleblower who worked in the American government). Trump's own words in correspondences between his administration and Ukraine's government, combined with a senior budget official’s instruction to the Pentagon to withhold aid to Ukraine, painted a pretty full picture to justify an impeachment inquiry.

Republicans don't have any of that. They have one form detailing an uncorroborated claim from an anonymous source that past investigators didn't seem to find particularly reliable. Even in conservative media, there has not been any blockbuster story proving that President Biden corruptly benefited from or aided in his son’s dealings. And to be clear, this is not some partisan take on this — Republicans themselves concede they are still on the hunt for evidence. As Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) said, “The inquiry would give us another tool in the toolbox specifically to look at Joe Biden’s bank records… Everyone’s screaming about the evidence, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ The bank records hold all of the evidence.”

In other words: We don't have evidence, but launching an impeachment inquiry might help us find some. That is not how these things are supposed to work.

If anything, I think a Biden impeachment inquiry is a lot more analogous to the FBI investigation of Trump's ties to Russia. That investigation was predicated on a bunch of hearsay and sketchy, uncorroborated claims from foreign sources. And we know how that turned out.

Like I said about Trump at the time, he paid the price for bringing on known sleazy political operatives like Paul Manafort to run his campaign. In an even closer parallel to Biden, he also paid the price for allowing his children to freelance as campaign managers, as they used that opportunity to take shady meetings with shady Russian lawyers offering dirt on his political opponents, and to do all kinds of things to get noticed by the FBI. In essence, he danced on the line, and he got burned.

Biden is now paying a similar price for his son's shady business dealings, which he has never done enough to stop and has lied repeatedly about. The idea that he and Hunter never spoke about business was always farcical; that Hunter didn't get money from China or that Biden was never meeting with his business partners was a little more believable, but always suspicious, and now we know those were lies, too. Finally, the most worrisome aspect of this story is that the investigation into his son looks like it was sent astray by a Justice Department led by officials that Biden appointed. That’s a story about something that happened while Biden was president, and there is far more evidence for Biden using the Justice Department for a coverup than for Biden taking cash and influencing American policy to help his son.

Do I think Biden acted corruptly as vice president and this impeachment inquiry will uncover a massive scandal? Not especially. My reaction is probably closer to John Fetterman's, who made a bunch of ghost noises and pretended to be terrified when he was informed of the impeachment inquiry. McCarthy doesn't even have the votes for this inquiry among Republicans. And even the ones who support the inquiry don't seem particularly gung-ho about the evidence they've found in the multiple investigations they have already launched. The appearance of corruption might make drawing this out with an impeachment worth it for Republicans politically, but I don’t think they are on the verge of breaking a new political scandal.

The New York Post editorial board (under "What the right is saying") made the best case for the inquiry that I saw, which is that there is enough circumstantial evidence and small details floating around that a full-throttle investigation to link them together is warranted. But again: Even The Post concedes that the "details need to be pinned down," while almost all of the conduct the board references is about things Biden did as vice president.

To me, the biggest scandals of the Biden administration so far are the story we covered yesterday about social media censorship and the Justice Department’s handling of the Hunter Biden investigation. I think if McCarthy weren't being pressured by his right flank, he would have waited for much more evidence before launching this inquiry. My hope now is that the coming investigation is at least conducted above board, soberly, and responsibly. There is an ocean between an impeachment inquiry and an actual impeachment, and Republicans would be wise (politically and otherwise) to investigate Biden thoroughly before trying to actually impeach him. For that, they will certainly need a lot more evidence than they have now.

In the meantime, it appears a new dam in our partisan trench warfare has been broken. And it’s likely to get messier from here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I heard from two sources on TV who reported that appointing David Weiss as special counsel was illegal because such a person could not be involved with the subject. I didn’t see such a comment in [Tangle’s coverage]. What do you think?

— Chuck from Austin, Texas

Tangle: We referenced criticisms and concerns about Weiss’s role from both the left and right in that piece, and I talked about how I shared those concerns in my take. One thing we didn’t discuss, however, was Section 600.3 in the Code of Federal Regulations. Some right-leaning pundits — like Charlie Kirk — did mention it, claiming that this section of the federal regulations makes Weiss’s appointment “illegal.” Accordingly, quite a few of our readers wrote in asking if this is true.

And the reason we didn’t include it in our coverage is that the answer is a confusing “not really.” Yes, the text of Section 600.3 defines the qualifications of the special counsel, stating specifically that “The Special Counsel shall be selected from outside the United States Government.” And yes, in that regard, Weiss’s appointment is a violation of the code.

However, that’s the Code of Federal Regulations, which is a non-binding compilation of rules and regulations issued by federal agencies and executive departments. They are regulations, not laws — like the U.S. Code of Law — and thus ignoring them is not illegal. 

Not only that, but this has been done several times before, including by Republicans. In 2003, Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed as special counsel by President George W. Bush’s acting Attorney General James Comey, and in 2020 John Durham was appointed as special counsel by Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr.

When conservative pundit William McGurn referenced the federal regulations in his opinion piece we cited in today’s main story, he said (emphasis mine) "The elevation of Mr. Weiss to special counsel has persuaded many that the fix is in, given Justice guidelines that say a special counsel should come from the outside."

He describes the Code of Federal Regulations as "guidelines." I think this is more accurate than calling them "laws," which have punitive force behind them. Attorneys general have the right to not abide by them when making their appointments. And while it wasn’t a good look to ignore this regulation, there is a distinction between ignoring a guideline and breaking the law.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

President Biden has simultaneously called himself the most pro-union president in history and the most effective environmental champion to ever sit in the White House. Now, those two claims are colliding as United Auto Workers are threatening to strike. Those workers are concerned, in part, by a push from the Biden White House to transition the auto industry to clean energy technologies. Many workers fear more electric cars will mean fewer jobs and lower pay, and UAW has withheld an endorsement of Biden's reelection over these concerns. Now a potential strike could destabilize the car industry, deliver a blow to economies in the midwest, and even boost inflation — as the price of cars is likely to go up if a strike is prolonged. The Washington Post has the story.


  • 1797. The year U.S. Senator William Blount of Tennessee was impeached, making him the first federal official to be impeached in U.S. history. Blount was accused of conspiring to assist Britain in capturing Spanish territory.
  • 1868. The year President Andrew Johnson was impeached, making him the first U.S. president to be impeached. Johnson was accused of violating the Tenure of Office Act
  • 21. The number of times the House has impeached a federal official, including three presidents, one cabinet secretary, and one senator. 
  • 8. The number of individuals — all federal judges — who have been impeached by the House and convicted and removed from office by the Senate. 
  • 2. The number of presidential impeachment proceedings conducted by the House in the first two centuries of the U.S. government.
  • 3. The number of presidential impeachment proceedings conducted by the House in the past 25 years.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered Ukraine's counteroffensive.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was Jay Battacharya's censorship story in The Free Press.
  • Over the line: 729 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking if the Biden administration violated the First Amendment in its content suggestions to social media companies, with 47% saying all or almost all of its suggestions were violations. 31% said most of the suggestions were violations, 16% said most of its suggestions were not violations, and 4% said no or almost no suggestions were violations. 3% were unsure or had no opinion. "You failed to contrast this with the many deaths caused by disinformation," one respondent added.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Coca-Cola's new flavor, designed by AI.
  • Take the poll. Do you think an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is justified? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.