WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Hunter Biden, U.S. President Joe Biden's son, attends the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House on April 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. The tradition dates back to 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes invited children to the White House for Easter and egg rolling on the lawn. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
'Pretty dark and gloomy': Reporter shares the feeling inside Hunter Biden's camp
00:59 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: W. James Antle III is the politics editor of the Washington Examiner and author of “Devouring Freedom: Can Government Ever Be Stopped?”

CNN  — 

The Biden family deserves congressional scrutiny. President Joe Biden reportedly engaged in phone calls with his son’s foreign business partners that could jeopardize the integrity of the White House and our democracy. Especially because they seem to have gone beyond the president and his aides’ claims of strict noninvolvement in Hunter Biden’s affairs.

According to congressional testimony in July from Hunter Biden’s former business partner Devon Archer, on several occasions Hunter put his father, then-vice president of the United States, on the phone during business calls. On a couple of occasions, Joe Biden even made appearances at dinners with Hunter’s foreign business associates. Even if Hunter Biden is merely guilty of “selling the illusion of access to his father,” as Archer put it, the vice president was complicit in creating the illusion.

W. James Antle III

There are questions about these matters that need to be asked. But an impeachment inquiry is not the place to ask them.

By launching such an inquiry against Biden on Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy becomes the latest political figure to debase and erode what was once the ultimate safeguard against presidential misconduct. He has contributed to turning what was and should be a rarely utilized mechanism for dealing with exceptional presidential malfeasance into a regular feature of partisan political disputes.

Nearly 106 years passed between the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and the push to impeach President Richard Nixon. (Johnson was acquitted and Nixon resigned.) Now we could be on the verge of having three of the last five presidents impeached, one of them twice.

Yet of these three, only in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment was there the remotest chance of sufficient bipartisan support for the process to win a Senate conviction. And that was only if a trial occurred while Trump was still in office, which it didn’t.

It seems that today, all it takes for a president to be impeached is for the opposite party to win control of the House. The speaker can then hold a simple majority vote to start the process, even though actually kicking a president out of office requires a Senate conviction only possible with a two-thirds majority (i.e. bipartisan) vote.

A major problem with this recent trend of futile partisan impeachments is that it devalues the process and removes any sting from the constitutional remedy for a president who has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Case in point is Trump. He was impeached twice. He is nevertheless the heavy frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and at least an even bet to win the general election. If impeachment has an impact on a president’s poll numbers, it may be the opposite of the intended one.

Without any realistic prospect of a Senate conviction and removal from office, impeachment becomes the equivalent of a nonbinding resolution opposing the president. Soon it has little more impact than a mean tweet.

In this December 19, 1998 photo, President Bill Clinton addresses the nation from the White House after the US House of Representatives impeached him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Republicans opened this Pandora’s box when they pursued an unpopular impeachment of President Bill Clinton for obstruction of justice and perjury for lying under oath about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky while testifying in Paula Jones’ sexual misconduct suit against him. Any chance of a Senate conviction went out the window when Sen. Joseph Lieberman, one of the few Democratic senators to wholeheartedly condemn Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky scandal, called impeachment “unjust and unwise.”

Democrats opened the box further when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the opening of Trump’s first impeachment inquiry before the full House voted in favor of it, breaking precedent. (McCarthy has now done the same, citing Pelosi’s example.)

From that point, there was a drive to get it done quickly heading into an election year. Even worse, the House, racing to get Trump’s second impeachment done before the end of his term, fast-tracked the process so much that they passed an article of impeachment in less than a week after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, bypassing the kind of hearings and investigation that had been present in the proceedings involving Nixon and Clinton.

Most Americans already believe that Biden was involved with his son’s business interests as vice president, so the allegations do not require amplification through an impeachment process. On the other hand, while an investigation is needed to discover the totality of his involvement and what lines it may have crossed, impeachment implies to voters that we already know the answers when we don’t.

House Republicans are emphasizing the “inquiry” part of the impeachment inquiry this time because they need to get to the bottom of Biden’s involvement with his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings. This move, they argue, will help them break White Housestonewalling by strengthening their subpoena power and helping them win court battles for documents. To paraphrase Pelosi, it seems we need to start impeachment proceedings to know what’s in them.

That backward thinking illustrates the problem that has led us to this point. The normal congressional oversight process, which ought to help us get to the bottom of matters such as the Biden family finances, can no longer serve that function because it is viewed as a fundamentally partisan exercise.

This goes for congressional hearings on Benghazi, January 6 or Hunter Biden. When accountability is only demanded by and for political opponents, it means people on the other side of the aisle can safely ignore the investigations. If you use an impeachment inquiry to get around this predicament, there is a real possibility that the same will happen to impeachment.

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Impeachment needs bipartisan support to have any credibility, much less a reasonable chance of Senate conviction. That may be difficult to obtain in a polarized era. But it is the most prudent condition for using this congressional power.

In the case of Biden, it is almost impossible to see how this inquiry will receive sufficient Democratic support to succeed in removing or even punishing the president. Even Senate Republicans don’t seem especially eager to take up the matter.

Partisan impeachments may even make it easier for presidents to survive wrongdoing in office because they are much simpler to dismiss as political witch hunts. And the precedent set by each such impeachment will be followed once again when the partisan roles are reversed. If we reach the point where divided government necessarily means impeachment, it will lose even any symbolic meaning.