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“Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” So declared the Queen of Hearts during the trial of the Knave of Hearts (for allegedly stealing tarts) in Alice in Wonderland. This approach, which Lewis Carroll meant to symbolize the height of absurdism, seems an apt description of how the House Republicans are proceeding with an impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden.
As of now, there is no evidence that Biden did anything to warrant the political equivalent of a death sentence. Yet rather than merely continue pursuing their multi-committee investigation of Hunter Biden’s admittedly questionable business dealings to determine if President Biden ought to be subjected to an impeachment inquiry, the Republicans have rushed to the presumed sentence before even coming close to reaching a verdict. This is absurd.
In previous impeachments, the basic facts of the alleged wrongdoing were known. The Watergate break-in and Richard Nixon’s efforts to impede the investigation of the burglary and subsequent cover-up were matters of public record when the House of Representatives on October 30, 1973, launched an impeachment inquiry. Previously, the Senate had created a special investigative committee and held the nationally broadcasted Watergate hearings, and federal prosecutors had long been on the case and sending Nixon’s minions to the hoosegow.
In the cases of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, the basics of their wrongdoing were confirmed prior to the House kick-starting impeachment. The infamous Starr report, which detailed Clinton’s affair with an intern and his subsequent lies about it, was submitted to Congress in early September 1998. The House GOP voted to launch the impeachment process a few weeks later. With Trump, there was no question that he had leaned on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to produce dirt on Joe Biden. A quasi-transcript of the phone call had been released. And Trump’s incitement of the insurrectionist assault on the Capitol on January 6 was done in full public view.
Whether these impeachments were justified or not, they were predicated on established misdeeds.
Not so now. What is this impeachment about? It’s about Republican speculation that Joe Biden was somehow involved in illicit activity with Hunter. Yet there is no confirmed evidence of that or that Hunter’s business ventures—which do appear to have been sleazy attempts to score big money by trading on the family name—were illegal.
The House Oversight Committee has released a compilation of what it calls “evidence of Joe Biden’s involvement in his family’s influence peddling schemes.” But this list mainly offers testimony and documents showing that Hunter Biden vigorously name-dropped his pop to grease business deals and that on a few occasions Biden met or chatted with his son and his son’s overseas business associates. There’s no information indicating Biden took official actions to help Hunter or his colleagues. This “evidence” could lead someone to think that something improper might have occurred; it provides leads that ought to be investigated. But it is not the basis for considering political execution.
House Republicans have repeatedly been forced to acknowledge that evidence linking Biden to corruption has not yet been unearthed. On CNN this week, Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) was pressed on whether the Republicans had found direct evidence of Biden malfeasance. He replied, “The point of the [impeachment] inquiry is to give us greater standing to get the full evidence.”
Moreover, Rep. Jim Comer (R-Ky.), the leader of the GOP impeachment inquiry, has distorted and exaggerated the investigation’s findings, repeatedly hurling false allegations about President Biden.
This is sentence first—investigation afterwards. We’re going to have an impeachment inquiry to see if we can find evidence to justify an impeachment inquiry. (I’d certainly welcome any investigation of wheeling-and-dealing conducted by relatives of elected officials, including, say, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.) As you would expect, numerous Republicans have conceded this impeachment effort is about weakening Biden for the 2024 election and seeking revenge for Trump.
Bottom line: This is a bogus and trumped-up impeachment crusade.
We now turn to an important question: How does the media cover and contextualize a sham impeachment? The aim of the Republicans—if they cannot produce true evidence of Biden corruption—is to tarnish the president by linking his name to “impeachment” in as many headlines and news accounts as possible. Can the media report on these shenanigans without being an accomplice, without bolstering a bad-faith effort driven by far-right extremists and conspiracy-mongers, such Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz? Even though news accounts sometimes note that the Republicans have yet to produce evidence to justify impeachment, the overall coverage ends up boosting the Biden-is-corrupt innuendo being slung by the Republicans.
Not to pick on the New York Times—but why not, since everyone does. When House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced on Tuesday that he was initiating an impeachment inquiry of Biden without a House vote, the Times covered his declaration on the front-page. The headline blared, “McCarthy Opens Inquiry of Biden, Appeasing Right.” In the opening paragraphs, the article focused on the internal GOP politics, reporting that McCarthy was doing this to appease far-right lawmakers and “quell a brewing rebellion among ultraconservative critics.”
The paper had a line in the third paragraph stating that after months of digging Republicans have found “no proof” of Biden corruption. But then it reported in detail McCarthy’s charge that Biden had lied about his knowledge of Hunter’s business dealings and that the Biden administration had given the president’s son “special treatment” in a criminal investigation. It quoted McCarthy declaring that the House Republicans have “uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct” and that “these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption.” (Note that McCarthy said “allegations,” not “evidence.”) A greater amount of ink was granted to McCarthy’s accusations than the absence of evidence.
It was not until the middle of the piece that the newspaper reported that some Republicans have not supported impeachment because GOP investigators have yet to produce evidence tying Biden to his son’s business dealings. Mainly, the Times handled the evidence question in the usual he said/she said approach, quoting Democrats insisting that no evidence of corruption has been turned up.
It’s all politics, charge and countercharge. Rs and Ds operating on the same level. Certainly, this adheres to journalistic convention. But it affords impeachment scammers an advantage, amplifying their insinuation that Biden is corrupt. And it allows them to—wait for it!—weaponize impeachment. That is, to use this dramatic course of action, justified or not, to spread the unproven notion that Joe Biden is a criminal dirtbag.
A story that appeared in the Times the next day similarly focused on McCarthy’s political dilemma, as well as his flip-flop on the issue of proceeding with impeachment absent a House vote. (He had previously said there must be such a vote.) But on the question of evidence—or the lack thereof—the newspaper again gave its readers thin gruel, with a half-sentence reporting that some Republicans were uncomfortable about “moving forward in the absence of solid evidence.”
All this downplays a central component of the story: the Republicans are proceeding with an impeachment absent hard-and-fast evidence. That helps the GOP.
How can the media avoid providing platforms to scoundrels whose goal is to spread disinformation and poison the national discourse? There was another example in the Times this week of empowering a liar. In an article about House Republicans who oppose military aid to Ukraine—even though firms in their districts manufacture weaponry being sent to Ukraine—the paper quoted Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) saying, “our constituents have great concerns about seemingly unlimited taxpayer money being used to fund the war in Ukraine, especially when Americans are struggling at home with rising inflation and places like East Palestine and Maui continue to be ignored by the Biden administration.”
The Biden administration didn’t ignore the train derailment disaster in East Palestine or the wildfires in Hawaii. It deployed multiple agencies to help the Ohioans, and Biden traveled to Maui. Why would the paper of record print an outright lie from Jordan and help him advance a deceitful agenda?
It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but there is a war going on in the United States over the future of American democracy. Disinformation is perhaps the most potent weapon in that war. And impeachment is now another front in that war.
So how does the media cover a (so far) baseless impeachment day by day without aiding and abetting the weaponizers? This circus cannot be ignored. But with each twist and turn, must reporters again and again lead with the fact that there is no solid predicate for this impeachment? Perhaps, even if that could get boring for reporters and their viewers and readers. Without context, unconfirmed accusations hurled by unprincipled accusers can influence the political debate. Remember how the Republicans spent years bleating “Benghazi” over and over to tarnish Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election? McCarthy boasted then that the GOP’s multiple Benghazi probes—which never proved any of the wild conspiracy theories—caused her poll numbers to drop. The Biden impeachment is the same strategy—on steroids.
McCarthy and his House colleagues are exploiting impeachment to generate headlines and soundbites that create the impression that Biden is a crook—to give Fox and its wannabe competitors plenty of grist for their propaganda-churning mills and to help Trump return to the White House with an authoritarian agenda. That is the crux of the story here. Whether the rest of the media plays it that way will determine if the extremists—those who tried to overturn the last election, who downplayed or excused a violent attack on the Capitol, and who now support a demagogic presidential candidate who subverted the constitutional order—succeed.