How the House GOP’s Biden impeachment effort fell apart

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer was eager to take the reins of a high-stakes investigation into President Joe Biden and his family, seen as central to the House Republican agenda – a coveted perch that brought the added benefit of elevating his national profile.

But after 15 months of coming up short in proving some of his biggest claims against the president, Comer recently approached one of his Republican colleagues and made a blunt admission: He was ready to be “done with” the impeachment inquiry into Biden, according to the lawmaker who relayed the conversation to CNN.

Comer has grown increasingly frustrated as his investigation appears to be at a dead end, with Republicans resigned to the reality that they don’t have the votes to impeach the president, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN.

Sources say the Kentucky Republican is now focused on tactfully wrapping up his work – all while Comer, a five-term congressman, has another matter on his mind: ambitions to run for higher office one day, including potentially running for governor, according to lawmakers who have spoken to him.

“Comer is hoping Jesus comes so he can get out,” one of the GOP lawmakers who spoke to Comer told CNN. “He is fed up.”

Even the House GOP’s impeachment of another favorite target, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, ultimately fizzled out, with the House narrowly impeaching him and the Senate quickly dispatching the charges without a trial.

When pressed on whether he would have done anything differently, Comer – who has defended his handling of the Biden probe – told CNN, “Not that I can think of.” And a House Oversight Committee spokesperson maintains that “the impeachment inquiry is ongoing and impeachment is 100% still on the table.”

GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna – who serves on the House Oversight Committee and supports impeachment – has told Comer she believes the panel should have issued subpoenas faster. She also believes the committee should have held the president’s son, Hunter Biden, in contempt of Congress the moment he defied his initial subpoena for closed-door testimony, instead of engaging in a long back-and-forth – a sentiment shared by many of her colleagues.

“I feel like this was slow-rolled, and it’s been very frustrating for me as a new member because I feel like there’s way more that we could have done, and it just hasn’t been done in a timely fashion,” Luna said.

Asked whether any of his Republican peers had privately voiced frustrations to him about the inquiry, Comer grew defensive and took a swipe at CNN, echoing complaints sources say he has made privately to colleagues about the media coverage.

“I don’t even want to talk to you,” he said. “If you don’t think they were influence-peddling, there’s nothing to say. My God.”

Embarking on a high-stakes GOP investigation into the president and his family in an election year with a divided, paper-thin majority was always going to be an uphill climb. Comer and his fellow top Republicans leading the probe have consistently been caught between the far-right wing’s early demands for impeachment and skeptical Republicans in vulnerable districts, all amid Democrats’ relentless efforts to dismantle their work.

But a series of missteps has left the probe stalled and without clear consensus on what a successful conclusion looks like, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republican lawmakers and sources.

“To me, success is impeachment from the House,” GOP Rep. Brian Mast said.

Blame game heats up

While there are three Republican chairmen co-leading the inquiry, Comer has arguably quarterbacked the most controversial pillar of the probe – millions of dollars’ worth of business dealings by the Biden family. Through that work, Comer has made sweeping claims that the president was involved in bribery and influence-peddling schemes that compromised his job.

While Comer maintains his goal has never been to impeach, it has not stopped some of his colleagues from pointing fingers at who is to blame for how Republicans got to this point. And some of Comer’s tactics have come under the most scrutiny inside the conference.

Some in the House GOP, granted the anonymity to speak freely, said they felt he often overpromised and underdelivered, with one GOP source who worked on the investigation telling CNN that people wished Comer had “reined in” his rhetoric. Instead of quietly building a case, Comer was quick to make bold accusations on friendly right-wing cable news platforms, sources said, which frustrated some members.

“I think early on, the most important thing to do is to let the evidence lead the investigation. And I think some of the earlier statements got a little more aspirational than the evidence really allowed,” one of the GOP lawmakers told CNN.

Another GOP lawmaker who spoke with Comer throughout the investigation reflected: “He seemed to think he had a lot of stuff that just seemed to indicate some things that needed to be investigated. I don’t know what happened.”

Despite the internal criticism, Comer still maintains the confidence of Speaker Mike Johnson and his leadership team. Comer’s co-leads, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, are also fully behind the work.

“Chairman Comer has done extraordinary work leading a fair investigation and carefully following the facts where they lead,” Johnson, who has worked to tamp down concerns that the investigation has not moved fast enough, said in a statement to CNN.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise echoed that sentiment, saying Comer’s “tireless work to deliver transparency, accountability, and the truth for the American people should be commended,” while GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik credited Comer with helping to “expose one of the biggest political corruption scandals in our nation’s history” and “delivering on the promise of accountability and transparency that House Republicans ran on.”

And Comer has also seen a massive boost in his profile – and war chest – since getting the Oversight Committee gavel. The Kentucky Republican has raised $5 million since the beginning of last year, up from the $1.65 million he raised in the entire previous cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Impeachment inquiry gets off to a rocky start

Shortly after former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy unilaterally launched the inquiry, Comer held his first hearing in September, hoping to deliver a splashy opening salvo to set the tone for the investigation and bring to the forefront months of behind-the-scenes work.

It did not go as planned.

The expert GOP witnesses testified they supported the opening of the inquiry, but the takeaway became their acknowledgement that Republicans did not yet have the evidence to prove the accusations they were leveling.

“There was a lot of theater going on that day,” Bruce Dubinsky, one of the GOP’s hearing witnesses, who has a 40-plus-year career as a fraud investigator, told CNN. “Everybody was trying to get their five minutes of fame in.”

Afterward, some Republicans complained that Comer should have collected more evidence and vetted the witnesses more closely before putting his investigation under the spotlight. One GOP source at the time called it an “unmitigated disaster.”

Less than a month later, the House removed McCarthy as speaker, leading to three weeks of chaos and paralysis, which put the inquiry on hold at a moment when the pressure to deliver was building.

Hunter Biden, second from the left, arrives for a closed-door deposition before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability and the House Judiciary Committee on February 28, 2024, in Washington, DC. - Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Hunter Biden, second from the left, arrives for a closed-door deposition before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability and the House Judiciary Committee on February 28, 2024, in Washington, DC. - Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Republicans get a boost

The October election of Johnson, who was fully supportive of the investigation, provided a glimmer of hope.

Republicans finally issued subpoenas and interview invitations to their top witness targets, including the president’s son, brother and business associates of the family.

Another boost of momentum came when Republicans united to formally authorize the inquiry after a clash with the White House, which claimed Republicans’ subpoenas for testimony and records were invalid without a floor vote.

At the same time, Republicans finally went after their top witness, Hunter Biden, who was at the center of their allegations about his father.

Republicans announced they would hold him in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with his subpoena for a closed-door deposition, sending lawmakers back to their districts at the end of 2023 with a huge win.

Allegations start to fall apart

But that high did not last long.

Witness after witness brought in for closed-door interviews in January and February built a pile of testimony that refuted core tenants of the inquiry. While their testimony sometimes put the president closer to his family’s business partners than previously known, including through surface-level interactions and phone calls, the chorus of firsthand accounts said Biden was not involved in his family’s business dealings, nor did he make policy decisions based on them.

“There is certainly influence-peddling, but that happens in this town unfortunately too often. I don’t think that’s an impeachable offense,” GOP Rep. Jodey Arrington said. “I think it’s too important of a matter to presume until the process is done.”

In February, Republicans were dealt a massive blow when it was announced that the individual who brought forward the bribery allegations about the president and his son memorialized in an unverified FBI document – which Republicans had been warned not to bank on – was charged with lying about the Bidens.

Republicans charged ahead, insisting they had a closed-door deposition with Hunter Biden to prepare for, even though they had repeatedly put those unverified claims at the center of their case.

But even without cameras, the president’s son failed to deliver the smoking gun Republicans were hoping for, leaving the inquiry at a standstill. Even GOP Rep. Darrell Issa remarked after the first hour of questioning that Hunter Biden was prepared for the interview.

“It needs to be a high bar, and if we are contemplating that on the president … I don’t think we are there yet,” GOP Rep. Doug LaMalfa reflected to CNN when asked whether he believed Republicans had uncovered evidence of an impeachable offense by the president.

Meanwhile, the impeachment of Mayorkas was a wake-up call. After a failed first attempt and a narrow victory, and with articles quickly dismissed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, Republicans realized the prospects of impeaching the president, seen internally as a much heavier lift, were increasingly unlikely.

“If we can’t impeach Mayorkas, I don’t know who else we can impeach,” Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas said ahead of the short-lived Senate trial.

When presented with those who do not believe the investigation has uncovered impeachable offenses by the president, Comer said: “Our investigation is ongoing and our findings will be laid out in a final report.”

GOP wrestles with how to end investigation

Now, Republicans leading the investigation are actively deliberating how to conclude the inquiry.

Even though GOP Rep. Austin Scott said he would vote to impeach, he noted, “With the margins that we have, we don’t have the votes to impeach the president on the floor.”

Comer has said he wants to send criminal referrals to the Department of Justice in the hopes that former President Donald Trump is elected and can capitalize on them.

Jordan, who described criminal referrals as “on the table,” told CNN, “The Constitution doesn’t put a time limit on oversight. So, we’re going to do our job thoroughly and then at some point the House of Representatives will decide if we’re going to move forward with articles of impeachment.”

And then there are those, particularly in competitive districts, who think it is time to move on.

“It’s April. There’s an election in seven months from now,” GOP Rep. Nick LaLota, who represents a New York district Biden won in 2020, told CNN. “It would be wise for folks to pump the brakes on the legal accusations being made against the two major-party candidates, and I think we’re close enough to the election to allow the people to decide the future.”

Meanwhile, Comer single-handedly invited the president to testify at a hearing. After the White House declined the invitation, he dropped his invitation for a hearing and instead focused on his request for documents and written answers.

The tension spilled into public view last week when Comer and the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin, got into a sparring match over the status of the investigation at an unrelated hearing.

Raskin posited, “You have not identified a single crime. What is the crime that you want to impeach Joe Biden for and keep this nonsense going?”

“You’re about to find out very soon,” Comer replied.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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