From Afghanistan to Hunter Biden, GOP readies its investigations
The Washington Post September 16, 2022
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has begun talks with top House Republicans on how to coordinate investigations across committees if the party is successful in taking over the House next year.
He has encouraged ranking Republicans on committees to send letters to agencies throughout the Biden administration, asking that they turn over or preserve documents, with more than 500 requests issued already.
He has also started holding regular training sessions for members and staff. One session held earlier this summer for House GOP attorneys, titled "Oversight Education Series: Investigations 101," laid out strategies for how such probes should be run. Last month, he held another that covered "how to conduct detailed depositions" in accordance with House rules.
Roughly two months before midterm elections that may hand the GOP control of the House, McCarthy and other Republicans are well into mapping out an expansive list of probes that will translate the party's grievances with Democratic policies and hot-button figures into investigative priorities.
House Republicans have so far pledged to investigate President Joe Biden's son Hunter's business dealings and art sales, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the Biden administration's military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of the novel coronavirus, coronavirus-related school closures, the administration's deliberations over weapons sales to Ukraine, and the spending of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Most recently, in the wake of widespread Republican outrage over the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, McCarthy vowed to investigate the Justice Department.
"Attorney General Garland: preserve your documents and clear your calendar," McCarthy tweeted the day of the FBI search, suggesting his intent to subpoena Merrick Garland over what he called the Justice Department's "intolerable state of weaponized politicization."
The California Republican has been open about his ambition to ascend to the post of House speaker. But after four years in the minority, two impeachments of President Donald Trump, and a presidency embroiled in oversight investigations, McCarthy and some of his top allies are already facing a challenge to keep apace with members' hunger to satisfy the base's zest for retribution. His decisions related to Republicans' investigative targets will need to be championed by members of his conference eager to motivate voters with evidence of investigative action, underscoring his tenuous path to the speakership.
McCarthy's efforts to shepherd the conference toward various investigative priorities have conspicuously failed to include targets being championed by some of the loudest voices in the party. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., for example, issued a letter signed by 10 other Republicans earlier this summer calling on House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to "investigate the potential illegal activities revealed in the documentary film 2000 Mules." And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., introduced articles of impeachment against Biden on his first full day in office. Neither member is likely to have investigative authority in the 118th Congress.
"We're not going to pick and choose just because somebody has power," McCarthy said earlier this year regarding calls to impeach Biden. "We're going to uphold the law. At any time, if someone breaks the law and the ramification becomes impeachment, we would move towards that. But we're not going to use it for political purposes."
McCarthy also has been cool to his members' calls for investigations into Trump's baseless claims of election fraud in the 2020 election, according to people familiar with his thinking - an issue that puts him out of step with Trump, the far-right flank of the House GOP conference, and a vast slate of election-denying GOP candidates vying for a congressional seat. But he was bullish on the latest object of ire for the base, vowing to investigate the country's top law enforcement agency after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago.
Just before leaving for August recess, McCarthy declined to say whether investigating the results of the 2020 election was on his oversight agenda, instead listing the economy, cost of living, price of gasoline, origins of the coronavirus and a handful of other items as investigative priorities if the GOP regains the majority. McCarthy also has been reticent to throw his support behind a counter-probe of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 and the lawmakers involved in that effort, according to people familiar with his thinking, and is wary of giving more oxygen to proponents of the "big lie."
"You can be concerned about election integrity without going full Sidney Powell," said a senior House GOP aide who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, name-checking the attorney who advised Trump on reversing the outcome of the 2020 election.
Committee assignments loom large
If Republicans take the House, McCarthy will be expected to make a number of other determinations that will shape the trajectory of GOP investigations - and the power of election deniers in the conference who have demanded plum committee assignments.
"This is the 'do something' Fox News crowd," said a second senior GOP aide. "They just want scalps. They want [Democrats] to be subpoenaed, kicked off of a committee, and someone to be impeached. McCarthy is going to have to make a decision like that very early."
One of those key decisions will be who leads several powerful House committees.
After McCarthy was elected minority leader in 2018, he helped cement his relationship with Trump loyalists and House Freedom Caucus members, who are broadly aligned in their support of Trump and his top priorities, by appointing Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, to lead the House Oversight Committee. Freedom Caucus members have started floating Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., according to people familiar with the discussions, to fill the top open spot on the House Homeland Security Committee.
If Republicans take back the House, Jordan is set to occupy the party's top spot on the House Judiciary Committee, which is uniquely equipped to investigate the executive branch. However, McCarthy would not say whether he would ultimately support Bishop to lead a committee that would handle investigations into the Southern border - a major priority for Republicans.
"There are multiple candidates running and the steering committee for the 118th Congress will decide that," a McCarthy aide said in a statement.
The House Freedom Caucus is already trying to lessen the role House GOP leadership plays in picking the powerful committee chairs. One proposal, first reported by the Washington Examiner, outlines a set of rule changes that would give rank-and-file members more power, including a reshuffling of the Steering Committee, by adding more "regional representatives" to the group that chooses which members sit on which committees.
"The Steering Committee makes nearly all decisions on committee assignments for House Republicans, but its makeup does not reflect all House Republicans, and instead it is packed with party leaders and their close allies," a memo outlining the proposal reads. "As a result, decisions are made based on who is loyal to leadership and who delivers the most fundraising - not who is best qualified."
Investigative framework has begun
Even without the subpoena power that comes with holding the majority, Republican lawmakers have started laying the groundwork for investigations.
The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas, hired an investigator last fall who prepared a preliminary report on the Biden administration's oft-criticized exit from Afghanistan. The 120-page interim report released last month alleged that the Biden administration failed to adequately prepare for the withdrawal and evacuate many Afghan allies who supported U.S. troops.
The report also lays out the minority's intent to subpoena the State Department for documents and interviews if Republicans win back the majority in November.
"Thirteen U.S. service members died during the Afghanistan evacuation and hundreds of American citizens and tens of thousands of our Afghan partners were left behind," McCaul said in a statement. "But Congress has struggled since last year to get information from the State Department about what led to this failure. I want to make it clear to our veterans and to the Americans who were abandoned in the country - I will not let up until we get answers and people are held accountable."
Jordan previewed his investigative agenda during a hearing this summer that featured testimony from Justice Department official Matthew Olsen, quizzing Olsen on whether the FBI targeted outspoken parents who protested coronavirus policies at school board meetings and whether the Justice Department has padded the number of domestic violent extremism cases. Jordan's committee is also likely to have jurisdiction over the potential impeachment of Mayorkas and some of the most important investigative priorities for the party.
"That will help frame up the 2024 race, when I hope and I think, President Trump is going to run again and we need to make sure that he wins," Jordan said during an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference this summer.
House Republicans have also intensified probes into Hunter Biden, who is being investigated by the FBI over whether he properly reported income from his business dealings.
Long a target for the right, the renewed scrutiny of Hunter Biden is viewed as a political boon for the House GOP conference - especially ahead of November midterms. "Our base wants us to look at Hunter Biden," a senior GOP aide said.
Rep. James Comer, Ky., the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, has sent letters to banks and the Treasury Department requesting financial records related to the president's son and his business associates, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Comer has vowed to investigate whether Hunter Biden's international business dealings created conflicts for his father when he was a U.S. senator, vice president or presidential candidate. An investigation conducted by The Washington Post into Hunter Biden's dealings with a Chinese energy conglomerate did not find evidence that his father personally benefited.
"This Republican obsession with Hunter Biden is a Fox News talking point," said a Democratic aide who works on investigations and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. "Unlike former president Trump and his family, who used their senior White House positions to advance their own financial interests - and whom Republicans have blindly defended - Hunter Biden is a private citizen who is not a member of the administration. Republicans' hypocrisy is not lost on the American people."
McCarthy is also likely create a select committee on China - a continuation of the work of the Republican-led congressional task force investigating China formed by McCarthy in 2020. The task force was initially designed to be bipartisan before Democrats ultimately opted not to join.
White House preparing for probes
While the White House publicly maintains it has not made any assumptions about the midterm elections, the White House Counsel's Office has staffed up in advance of the potential onslaught of oversight investigations.
The counsel's office poached the top lawyer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Richard Sauber, to oversee responses to subpoenas and oversight efforts, and Ian Sams joined the counsel's office as a spokesperson focused on responding to congressional investigations earlier this year. The office is likely to add more staff.
"As we have since the transition, we are ensuring the White House is prepared for the issues we are facing or will face in the future, and we have built and continue to build a strong legal team to conduct our work and serve the public and the President," Sams said in a statement.
If Republicans have learned anything from the House Jan. 6 select committee, it's the value in creating such a panel with members chosen by the speaker to conduct investigations on a particular topic or subject.
The approach may also highlight the bubbling schism in the conference as GOP firebrands angle to assume more prominent roles in the party's major investigations if the majority flips. For example, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Fla., told Breitbart News in an interview last month that there have been discussions about creating a select committee to investigate the Biden family - even as Comer, who is poised to lead the Oversight Committee, has been laying the groundwork to investigate Hunter Biden.
Like Biggs and Greene, Gaetz also lacks investigative authority.
"The House Oversight Committee has expansive oversight authority under House rules," a Republican Oversight Committee aide said in response to Gaetz's comments. "Next Congress, Oversight Committee Republicans will continue their investigation into the Biden family's suspicious business dealings using the power of the gavel to get answers for the American people."