Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced Tuesday that he’s directing House committees to begin a formal impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden. McCarthy’s announcement comes a little less than four years after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced an impeachment inquiry in response to President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine.
Trump’s 2019 impeachment isn’t the best point of comparison for this quixotic attempt to bring down Biden.
But despite the similarities in timing and the clearly stated vengeance driving the GOP, Trump’s 2019 impeachment isn’t the best point of comparison for this quixotic attempt to bring down Biden. Neither is the last Republican-led impeachment effort, which, in 1999, resulted in the Senate’s acquitting President Bill Clinton. What McCarthy has ordered the House committees to do is to pursue the strategy Republicans used against President Barack Obama and his administration during the Benghazi scandal.
The biggest difference the burgeoning Biden impeachment inquiry has with Clinton’s and Trump’s first is that no real evidence of wrongdoing by Biden has been uncovered. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee made that point this week, noting that eight months of fervent hunting has turned up bupkis. But McCarthy isn’t worried about evidence; he’s worried about politics. The right flank of his conference (and much of the GOP base) expected an impeachment inquiry to materialize, and some have linked their willingness to keep the government open to moving forward against Biden.
None of the scandals from Obama’s time in office ever hit the impeachment threshold, not when there were enough senior GOP members around who knew that impeaching Clinton hadn’t worked out for them politically. But there was Benghazi.
A U.S.-led NATO coalition had enforced a no-fly zone over Libya that saved civilians from a likely massacre and helped rebels overthrow longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi as part of the Arab Spring, and it did so without committing American troops to ground combat. But then, with the 2012 election just weeks away, an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The GOP-led House almost immediately began investigating the Obama administration’s response, including the delay in sending military assets to help repel the assault. Five committees were already looking into the matter, but ahead of the 2014 midterms, the GOP voted to form a select committee to specifically investigate Benghazi. It was clear then that the move was less about uncovering the truth or exposing wrongdoing than it was about embarrassing Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then seen as the likely front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
As with the Benghazi committee investigation, there’s no way to know how long this fishing expedition will stretch on. Republicans had independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report to use as a road map against Bill Clinton. There were a little over two months between Republicans’ voting to open an inquiry in October 1998 and their passing two articles of impeachment. In 2019, Pelosi demanded a similarly condensed timeline, because she wanted the investigation wrapped up and articles of impeachment against Trump passed before the Christmas recess. With the Benghazi committee, though, the goal was to draw it out and inflict the most political pain by keeping it in the headlines off and on through the next election.
As with the Benghazi committee investigation, there’s no way to know how long this fishing expedition will stretch on.
McCarthy gave up the game on the Benghazi committee even before Hillary Clinton testified to the committee. Asked in a Fox News interview the month before her testimony to name a promise the House GOP had kept, McCarthy responded: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
There went the fiction that the committee was not about political posturing and/or fundraising but only about justice for four dead Americans. McCarthy’s accidental truth-telling helped cost him his first shot at being speaker, leaving Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as the compromise choice. And while Clinton did lose to Trump in 2016, Benghazi wasn’t her albatross; her use of a private email server was.
The Benghazi committee quietly shut down in December 2016 after two years of investigations, having released a final report months before that conceded that while there were many errors and misjudgments, there was no wrongdoing or malfeasance by Hillary Clinton or anybody else in the Obama administration.
As flimsy as the reasons to keep investigating Benghazi ad nauseam were, it’s even more obvious this time around that no higher principles or perceived threat to the republic are animating the impeachment effort. Clinton was accused of lying under oath to a grand jury and attempting to obstruct justice. Trump was accused of abusing his office to try to win an election and obstructing Congress’ investigation. Biden is accused of what, exactly?
No similar inciting act sparked this inquiry into the president. It’s just a thing on McCarthy’s checklist to try keep his own caucus happy and to help weaken Biden as he heads into 2024.