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Republicans struggle to escape their Biden impeachment quagmire

It’s not like things were going well.

Republicans were more than a year into trying to prove President Biden was corrupt, tied to his brother’s and son’s dubious business endeavors, but had no luck. They kept interviewing people who directly rebutted that thesis, leaving them with no option but to cherry-pick other circumstantial claims to maintain the perception of progress. At times, Republican leaders would just step outside the boundaries of demonstrable reality — when they weren’t reiterating long-debunked arguments.

Then Alexander Smirnov goes and gets indicted.

Smirnov spent several months of 2023 being anonymously hailed as a trusted FBI informant, someone whose presentation of his interactions were all but essential to federal law enforcement. So when House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) started hyping an allegation Smirnov had made about Biden receiving a bribe, it got a lot of traction. Except that now the Justice Department says — and reinforced in its indictment with evidence — that Smirnov made it up.

The immediate fallout from that indictment was for Comer and other Republicans, like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), to be the focus of largely deserved disparagement for hyping the allegation in the first place. In fairness, Comer and others did at times question the legitimacy of the claim, just as the Bureau had been warning since he and Grassley first elevated it. But mostly they folded it into their broader story about how Biden must be corrupt.

When then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced that his conference would launch an impeachment inquiry into Biden, he pointed to the debunked bribery claim as one predicate for doing so. But he also pointed to other things that were similarly dubious and that, in the months since, Comer, Jordan and their committees have been unable to substantiate.

That’s gotten lost in the conversation following Smirnov’s indictment, particularly after a federal court filing noted that Smirnov had ties to foreign intelligence officials. This has repeatedly been incorrectly used to allege that the bribery claim was a product of Russian intelligence, which hasn’t been shown, but either way the focus is on Smirnov.

Among Republicans, there’s something else going on: an effort to figure out how they’re going to get out of this impeachment quagmire they’ve created.

Politico reported on Friday that the inquiry is “on the brink of collapse,” which is probably too neat a descriptor. It hinges on the significant possibility that the House won’t bring articles of impeachment against Biden but does not address the lingering demand on the right for him to be held to account for what conservatives perceive as his wrongdoing.

In January, the Pew Research Center found that 9 in 10 Republicans think Biden has done things that are grounds for impeachment. More than half say that’s definitely the case.

Or, another lens: Since the impeachment inquiry was launched, Marquette Law School has polled Americans on whether they think Biden or Donald Trump have behaved corruptly. More Americans say Trump has, including more independents. But a consistent three-quarters of Republicans say that “has behaved corruptly” describes Biden at least somewhat well — despite the failure of Republicans to put forth any evidence to that end.

But then it’s easy to see how this works. Conservative media, like Fox News, gives cover to Republican efforts to hype impeachment, picking up only those circumstantial elements of the case. Hosts Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo have been at the leading edge of the effort.

The people leading the impeachment push play similar games. Consider this social media post this week from the official account of the House Judiciary Committee.

10% for the Big Guy.

— House Judiciary GOP (@JudiciaryGOP) February 22, 2024

It mashes together two of the circumstantial components of their case: an email from a third party that at one point referred to money being held for the “big guy” and a check of a payment to Biden.

These have been explained. The “big guy” comment has been presented by Republicans as evidence that Biden benefited from a business deal his family was involved in, but the guy who sent the email has publicly rejected that idea. The check, meanwhile, is for the unrelated repayment of a loan — it says “loan repayment” in the lower left corner — that Biden had extended to his brother. It is not Biden receiving a cut of a business deal.

But these are both little Legos that Republicans keep using to try to create an impressive building.

Other Republicans take a different tack. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has long been unusually skeptical of the effort to catch Biden in nefarious activity, and he reiterated that point on CNN on Thursday night. That said, he did reiterate one of the bits of rhetoric that has served as a narrative arc for all of this.

“I do believe when these foreign governments are loading up the entire Biden family apparatus with cash, they’re not doing so to extract some sort of skill or service from these ne’er-do-well Bidens,” Gaetz said. “They’re doing it to influence Joe Biden.”

When CNN host Abby Phillip noted that this was just an inference, Gaetz attacked Biden’s son Hunter, referring to his admitted drug addiction.

“Why do you think Burisma was paying Hunter Biden?” he asked. “Do you think they were paying him to figure out where to go buy crack in L.A.?”

This, too, has been addressed. Of course, foreign actors (who weren’t “foreign governments”) enlisted Hunter and the president’s brother, Jim Biden, because they hoped to leverage Joe Biden’s power and position. The evidence compiled by House Republicans makes this very clear. In the testimony of Hunter Biden’s former business partner, Devon Archer, for example, we hear that Hunter instructed Archer specifically to foster this idea.

But we also hear that Hunter Biden admitted in contemporaneous communication that he didn’t have the ability to get his father to do things. Hunter Biden promoted that idea and even, in one case, explicitly suggested that they claim that some action of his father’s was because of his influence, even though it wasn’t. He even worried that doing so might “end up creating too great an expectation” that he could get his father to do other things.

This is all unethical and seedy, absolutely. But it is also a very obvious explanation for the circumstantial stuff, like Hunter Biden putting his dad on speaker when he’d happen to call during Hunter’s business meetings. It is also contained to Hunter Biden and James Biden, but Gaetz and many other Republicans suggest that it somehow isn’t.

This is the bind. Republicans think Biden is corrupt and want to see him impeached but, even without the FBI informant implosion, Republican leaders have been unable to deliver anything that gets them there. Maybe Hunter Biden’s upcoming testimony will shake something loose, but that seems highly unlikely.

Instead, the most likely resolution of this is that, sunk in this tar pool they’d created, Republicans stop struggling and sit still for a while — hoping that Trump wins in November, lifting them from the quagmire.

If he doesn’t? Well, let’s see what Sean Hannity says.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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