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Under new speaker, some Republicans hope impeachment inquiry will step carefully

During the 22-day fight to fill the post of House speaker, the Republican-led impeachment inquiry against President Biden gathered dust on the sidelines.

Closed-door transcribed interviews with various witnesses and investigative work continued. But since then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made the sudden decision to launch a formal inquiry, in part to appease hard-line Republicans who would soon move to oust him from the speaker’s seat, momentum behind the effort has waned.

As Republican lawmakers have resumed regular business, the new speaker of the House, a former member of the Judiciary Committee where a part of the inquiry is being conducted, has staked out a different position than those leading the inquiry.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), a constitutional lawyer by training, has taken a more reserved tone, both publicly and privately, urging members to conduct a thorough and fair investigation with no predetermined outcome. In a closed-door meeting with House GOP moderates this week, he indicated that there is insufficient evidence at the moment to initiate formal impeachment proceedings, according to people who attended the meeting.

“We’ll just go where the evidence goes and we’re not there yet,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, paraphrasing Johnson’s comments on the inquiry at the Republican Governance Group’s weekly lunch on Tuesday. “Most of us are saying, look, we can’t even get a single Democratic vote on this right now. I think the voters will reject what they are seeing when it comes to Biden [policies] — but high crimes and misdemeanors? I don’t think we’ve seen that or enough data to really make a good case and I feel like [Johnson] really agreed with us on that.”

So far, House Republicans have not put forth any direct evidence that Biden profited from his son Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine and elsewhere, nor has the president been linked to any potential wrongdoing in the probe of the Justice Department’s investigation of his son — the two issues Republicans identified when announcing the inquiry. Republicans identified two IRS agents who alleged the administration hamstrung the DOJ’s investigation into the president’s son’s finances. But the special counsel in charge of that investigation has flatly rejected that theory, as have other investigators and witnesses involved with the case. The White House has called the inquiry a “baseless, evidence-free” stunt.

Johnson, who told reporters that he has been “intellectually consistent” in cautioning against a rushed investigation during a news conference last week, has previously accused Biden of bribing or pressuring a foreign leader. During a Fox News appearance over the summer, Johnson accused Biden of wielding taxpayer resources to fire Ukraine’s top prosecutor to benefit his son’s business dealings — an allegation widely disputed by both U.S. and foreign officials. And in another interview on Fox News last week, Johnson said that “if, in fact, all the evidence leads to where we believe it will, that’s very likely impeachable offenses.”

But in this week’s private meeting with moderates, Johnson appeared to agree with Republican lawmakers who argued that since Biden’s polling numbers have been so weak, there is less of a political imperative to impeach him, according to Bacon and others who attended the meeting.

“Is it pragmatic? Does it make sense? Connecting those dots matter,” Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) said after the meeting. “So I don’t think it makes sense to move down a road unless those dots can be connected, and I think that’s the message he was trying to send to us which we appreciated.”

As Johnson has stressed thoroughness and specificity in the inquiry, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) has continued to call for formal impeachment proceedings. He issued subpoenas for Hunter Biden and James Biden on Wednesday, requesting the president’s son and brother appear for depositions, and requested voluntary closed-door interviews with other Biden family members, including Hallie Biden, the widow of Hunter’s older brother Beau with whom Hunter Biden had an affair after his brother died, and Hunter’s wife, Melissa Cohen. Comer issued additional subpoenas on Thursday requesting interviews with several of Hunter Biden’s business associates, including his New York City art gallerist, Georges Bergès, and Elizabeth Naftali, a buyer of Hunter Biden’s art who is also a Democratic donor.

Raj Shah, a spokesperson for the speaker, said Johnson “has consistently praised the work of Chairmen [Jim] Jordan, Comer and [Jason] Smith whose investigations have already demonstrated that the President and White House have repeatedly lied about the Biden family’s business dealings with foreign adversaries. He will support their efforts to follow the facts where they lead.”

The subpoenas come as Comer has raised questions about a March 1, 2018, personal check Joe Biden received from his brother James Biden. The check was a loan repayment after Biden transferred $200,0000 to his brother on Jan. 12, 2018, according to documents provided to The Washington Post and to Comer’s committee. But Comer has sought to paint the loan repayment between Biden and his brother in nefarious terms, alleging without evidence that it shows Joe Biden received indirect payments from his son’s foreign business dealings.

Comer dismissed a bank record of a wire payment presented to him by The Post on Wednesday, that showed a $200,000 payment to James Biden that originated from the president’s attorney trust account. Comer alleged without evidence that the law firm representing Joe Biden represents “a bunch of companies that have been money laundering.”

A representative for the firm Monzack Mersky Browder and Hochman did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Comer’s unsubstantiated allegation.

Comer has grated some of his colleagues by touting explosive allegations that have not produced a smoking gun upon further scrutiny. The Oversight Committee’s first hearing on the impeachment inquiry, held at the end of September, was privately panned by some Republican members and GOP staff who criticized Comer for tapping witnesses who rebuffed his narrative that there was enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against the president.

“I do not believe that the current evidence would support articles of impeachment that is something that an inquiry has to establish,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University Law School professor who testified at the hearing at Comer’s request. “But I also believe that the House has passed the threshold for an impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Biden.”

After the hearing, other normally friendly voices for Republicans came out against moving forward with formal impeachment proceedings, including lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who argued on Fox News that “because the allegations from Republicans revolve around activity from when Biden was vice president and not in his current position in the Oval Office, that precludes him from being impeached.”

Others who have been touted as star witnesses have failed to deliver evidence of wrongdoing by Biden, and some of the central claims of the inquiry have been contradicted in subsequent interviews with witnesses. Testimony from two IRS agents, who came forward after complaining that Justice Department officials had slow-walked and stymied their investigation into Hunter Biden, has been undercut by other officials who appeared before investigators. David Weiss, the federal prosecutor tapped to serve as special counsel investigating Hunter Biden, told lawmakers in an interview this week that he had full authority over the case. He also testified that at no point during the investigation has he been overruled by Justice Department officials.

Weiss disputed the claims that have largely driven Judiciary Committee Chairman Jordan’s (R-Ohio) track of the investigation: “At no time was I blocked, or otherwise prevented from pursuing charges or taking the steps necessary in the investigation by other United States Attorneys, the Tax Division or anyone else at the Department of Justice,” Weiss said in his opening statement to the Judiciary Committee.

Jordan continued to claim after the interview that Weiss was denied authority by the Justice Department because he testified that he was not granted special attorney appointment. While similar to the term special counsel, which has more autonomy, a special attorney is a less formal structure that allows a federal prosecutor in one district to file charges in another district.

Weiss also testified that he never had direct communication with Attorney General Merrick Garland, other than his written request for a special counsel in August, further undercutting accusations that the Biden administration obstructed the investigation into Hunter Biden. Weiss, who was appointed to oversee the probe in 2018 during the Donald Trump administration, did say he had conversations with then-Attorney General William P. Barr.

Several other officials involved with the Hunter Biden investigation appeared for closed-door interviews last month, including two of the U.S. attorneys whom Weiss approached regarding bringing tax fraud charges against Hunter Biden. U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Matthew Graves also disputed the IRS agents’ accusations and testified that while his office declined to formally “partner” with Weiss on the case, he offered to support federal prosecutors in “returning whatever charges you want to return in our district.” Hunter Biden was indicted on false-statement and illegal-gun-possession charges in Delaware this summer.

Meanwhile, the chorus of House Republicans urging caution in the inquiry has only grown since Johnson assumed the speaker’s seat, with some arguing that Republicans should not mimic what they viewed as politicized and rushed impeachments against former president Trump.

“We need to have an orderly and fair process about this,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.). “You have to go through due process on this and there’s a long ways to go before we start talking about and actually doing that. A lot more work needs to be done on James Comer and Jim Jordan’s committees — it’s got to be ironclad, and it’s got to be right before we start talking the ‘i’ word.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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