The Republican push to impeach President Biden formally began on Thursday with a hearing held by the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill. By most objective accounts, it was not a huge success for the GOP, featuring witnesses who by their own admission couldn’t provide any evidence incriminating Biden and who were loath to state that such evidence existed.
But in the creaky machine that is modern American politics, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is how the impeachment inquiry is perceived, and in that critical battle, the actual machinations in the hearing room are unimportant. What’s important are the snippets excerpted from the hearing and the extent to which flaws in either side’s case are smoothed over for mass consumption.
By that measure, the hearing was just dandy. Anyone tuning in to Sean Hannity’s prime time Fox News program, for example, learned that Republicans executed a precision strike on the sitting president, offering up evidence that only a buffoon or a hack could deny. This presentation was made easier by Hannity’s playing host to the three Republicans leading the impeachment push — each of whom offered false, baseless or debunked claims to which the Fox News host offered absolutely no pushback.
The assiduously policed right-wing narrative about the president was left unharmed.
Hannity’s show began the way all serious news programs do, with members in the live studio audience chanting “U-S-A!” as the host welcomed them. Hannity then launched into his monologue, his usual articulation of Republican genius and Democratic stupidity with elements of the hearing slotted into the appropriate places.
Someone inclined to be skeptical of Hannity’s daily presentations would very quickly wonder how his audience could continuously suspend disbelief. On Thursday, for example, Hannity alleged illegalities and unethical behavior by Biden that would make a New Jersey senator blush, arguing that the evidence of these actions was unassailable. Yet, he suggested, Democrats are so blinkered or craven that they simply ignore all of this, for days and months on end. And that’s the answer: Democrats would have to be utterly soulless and desperate for power to let this purported proof go unaddressed, so that’s the assumption about Democrats that carries the day.
“In our hyperpartisan world,” he said at one point, “Democrats still try almost anything to defend their president.” And then, a few minutes later, he credulously hosted Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), James Comer (R-Ky.) and Jason Smith (R-Mo.) to make false claims in an effort to backstop the failures of their impeachment hearing.
Jordan went first. He presented the same argument that he did in his opening remarks on Thursday, remarks that included explicit misrepresentations and falsehoods, as we documented shortly afterward. The simplest demonstration of Jordan’s dishonesty centers on his suggestion that Joe Biden’s son Hunter was asked by the Ukrainian energy company on whose board he sat to get rid of a Ukrainian investigator, which contradicts the available evidence, and that Joe Biden then traveled to Ukraine to begin a push to oust the investigator, which is flatly untrue. Among other things, the trip had been announced weeks before the purported pressure on Hunter.
Jordan also mixed in one of the myriad mini-bombshells that the right has briefly amplified over the past six months: a letter sent from board members of the company (including Hunter Biden) to the Ukrainian prosecutor in July 2016, asking that he halt investigations into the company. But this was the new prosecutor, the one brought on board after the first one was ousted for failing to address corruption thanks to American and international pressure. The letter came after the new prosecutor announced a robust probe into the company — an investigation that was not underway when Joe Biden joined the effort to remove the old prosecutor.
House GOP holds first Biden impeachment inquiry hearing
In any sane world, this would be evidence that the removal of the old prosecutor was, as Hunter Biden’s former business partner testified, bad for the company, since it meant there might be (and was) a prosecutor that actually looked into its behavior. But “Hunter Biden objects to investigation” is a central component of Jordan’s argument, timeline and identity of prosecutor notwithstanding.
“If that’s not a corrupt influence-peddling scheme,” he said, “I don’t know what is.” So it would seem.
Then it was Comer’s turn. He’s an old hand at exaggerating claims about Biden on Hannity, and he didn’t disappoint.
“We have bank wires that show the Bidens took $20 million from foreign nationals in at least five different countries,” he began, which isn’t true. At the hearing, he offered a more accurate assessment, that “to date, we’ve shown that the Biden family and their companies received more than $15 million” with other partners receiving more. A subtle distinction, but a telling one: His “$20 million” formulation has been part of his patter for months and he slips right back into it.
The rest of his argument was similarly familiar, including his presentation that Hunter Biden used “shell companies,” which “shows money laundering” — inflammatory language that is in the first case misleading and in the latter unsubstantiated.
Comer also elevated one of the new arguments that emerged in the hearing.
“[Rep.] Byron Donalds showed that text message today from Jim Biden” — Joe Biden’s brother — “to Hunter Biden when Hunter was going to rehab again,” Comer said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll work with your dad. We’ll finish those deals.’”
That isn’t what the message said. It was a response from James Biden to Hunter’s worries that he couldn’t “pay alimony [without] Dad or tuitions or for food and gas.” This was in a period when Hunter’s uncle was trying to get him into rehab, a stint that proved unsuccessful, as Hunter Biden writes in his memoir. James Biden’s response to the text assures Hunter that “[t]his can work, you need a safe harbor” — and that he would work with Hunter’s dad.
“We can develope a plan together,” James Biden wrote. “It can work.” He did not say, “We’ll finish those deals.” But, of course, Hannity did not correct Comer.
Finally, Jason Smith came up to the plate. He’s newer to this whole thing and mostly repeated what Comer said. He did point to a document showing that Joe Biden’s name was removed from a search warrant targeting potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“There was obstruction in investigating President Joe Biden,” Smith said — but that email was sent in August 2020, when Joe Biden was a private citizen and the Justice Department was under the purview of William P. Barr, appointed by then-President Donald Trump.
If you were watching Hannity’s show, though, none of this context and correction was presented. You saw Hannity spend 10 minutes or so railing against the imperviousness of the evidence against Biden and the nefariousness of anyone who denied that fact. You heard three elected Republican leaders making explicit claims about Biden without hearing any of the qualifications those claims demand. And then you heard Hannity praise their work and the studio audience applaud before going to commercial.
The point of failure here isn’t really Hannity, though. It’s that elected officials can make the same false claims over and over, misrepresent what they know multiple times in the span of hours and face no pushback. It’s that the bubble surrounding all of this is so impermeable that it forms a closed terrarium, a self-sustaining environment that resists any outside intervention.
But what else can we do but sit here outside of it, attempting to convey reality like we’re dropping leaflets into North Korea?