WASHINGTON — It all comes back to Donald Trump.
A consideration by House GOP leaders of an impeachment inquiry into the sitting president, the possibility of a third Trump indictment, polling that suggests the 2024 election could be a rematch between the two men: allies of President Joe Biden see a connection.
Trump’s growing lead over his Republican competitors has lawmakers on both sides of the aisle preparing for a scenario in which the twice-impeached, twice-indicted, former president makes a once unthinkable political comeback and is chosen by GOP voters to compete against Biden.
Democrats are linking Trump’s legal problems and his performance in the Republican presidential contest — in which he currently has a comfortable lead of 30 or more points in national polling — to a GOP push to launch a formal investigation into Biden over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption.
“They’re trying to deflect,” said David Brock, a veteran Democratic strategist and founder of the pro-Biden group Facts First USA.
Republicans have been trying to “create an impression that the Biden administration is corrupt” and “scandalize various actions” of his presidency for some time, Brock said. “I think they’re ramping it up to distract and deflect very legitimate charges that are being filed and are likely to be filed in the future against Donald Trump.”
Trump has been indicted in two separate cases, one that involved a hush-money payment to a porn star and another that deals with his handling of classified documents. He is also under criminal investigation for his conduct on and leading up to Jan. 6, 2021 when he refused to concede his loss to Biden and his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, and his alleged efforts to overturn the outcome of the last presidential election.
Trump was impeached by the Democratically-controlled House prior to the 2020 election for pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. The House charged Trump in a second impeachment trial with inciting the insurrection.
Both times, the Senate acquitted him.
“I assume that Donald Trump, the presumed frontrunner for the GOP nomination doesn’t want to be the only impeached candidate in the presidential election campaign, so they want to add impeachment to Joe Biden’s resume,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who prosecuted the second Trump case, told USA TODAY. “But the only thing they’re missing is a high crime or misdemeanor. And that’s the constitutional standard. You don’t impeach people because you disagree with their policy positions or because you need to gain some political leverage.”
Hunting for evidence
GOP lawmakers are hunting for evidence that Biden was involved as vice president in his son Hunter’s business dealings with foreign companies. They are hinging their calls for an impeachment inquiry on uncorroborated information in an FBI document that Trump’s Justice Department and a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney looked into and decided not to escalate.
Conservatives are trying to prove the existence of audio recordings in which Biden and his son allegedly solicited and accepted bribes from a Ukrainian businessman.
Bribery would meet the impeachment standard for graft, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who wants to see the House launch an inquiry, said before Congress departed for summer recess.
“What we do not know is if the allegations are true. And so, what I have called for is an impeachment inquiry. The president deserves an opportunity to present a defense, to present evidence, that he is not guilty of the charges that were raised,” Cruz said.
The White House declined to comment on Cruz’s remark or the GOP’s motivations for pursuing an impeachment inquiry.
In response to earlier calls from GOP lawmakers for Biden’s impeachment, White House spokesman Ian Sams said allegations against Biden have been “debunked for years.” Sams said the allegations were scrutinized during Trump’s first impeachment trial and “have been found to lack credibility.”
Trump has egged Republican lawmakers on.
“They impeach me over a ‘perfect’ phone call, and they don’t impeach Biden,” he said in an all-caps social media post.
In another, Trump said of impeaching Biden: “Republicans in Congress just TALK – Nothing will happen. Some actually say they “have other things to do.” What a difference!”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tripped alarms when he said last week that the accusations against Biden are “rising to the level of impeachment inquiry.” He later sought to draw a distinction between launching a formal inquiry, which he says would give the House more tools to investigate Biden, and impeaching the president for committing alleged crimes.
McCarthy denied that he was under pressure from Trump, who he has not endorsed, to launch an impeachment inquiry, and defended the potential use of precious calendar time for an investigation when the House returns from recess.
“How productive have we been so far? I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” McCarthy said.
Trump supporter and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham deferred to McCarthy’s judgement on whether to open an impeachment inquiry into Biden as lawmakers wrapped up their summer business. But he said, “Politically, impeachments haven’t really helped anybody.”
Sen. J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican who has also endorsed Trump, said he’s seen “pretty troubling signals” about Biden’s conduct as vice president, but he believes “it would be a mistake to commit to an impeachment inquiry” at this time “because we have to learn a lot more information, and that’s what the House is doing.”
“The question really is, does it tie directly to the president in a way that can be proven, and if it does, then certainly he should be impeached,” Vance said.
Democrats hit back
Just three U.S. presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Trump, twice, in 2019 and 2021. Congress opened an inquiry into Richard Nixon over Watergate, however, he resigned before he could be impeached.
“They’re convinced, I think, that the impeachments of Trump hurt Trump, and it’s a tit for tat, and I think they think they can get political advantage out of it,” Brock said.
Democratic strategist Leslie Dach, a former Obama administration official who is advising a group that is focused on defending Biden in House investigations, pointed to Trump’s comparison of his first impeachment to the allegations Republicans have levied against Biden.
“Trump is very clear, as he always is, it is always about him,” Dach, a senior advisor to the Congressional Integrity Project, said.
Dach said he sees a direct correlation between Trump’s comments and House Republicans’ support for a possible impeachment inquiry into Biden.
“I think it’s very clear that Trump is calling a lot of the cards on this, pushing impeachment, both directly and because his allies want to defend them and distract from his legal problems,” Dach said.
Longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that McCarthy, who fought an uphill battle to become speaker and has a narrow majority, is raising the prospect of an impeachment inquiry to help himself politically.
“Basically, it’s the only strategy that Kevin McCarthy has at this time, which is to appease Donald Trump,” Brazile said. “At every turn, when former President Trump talks to the public, he talks about two things: revenge and retribution. And this is part of the same pattern. It’s all about retribution.”
Brazile added: “Kevin McCarthy has no power, or no ability, to get his ultra right-wing base behind anything else other than trying to hurt the president.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the GOP’s threat to open an impeachment inquiry into Biden “reeks of not having a plan, not ready to govern.”
Swalwell, an impeachment manager in the second Trump case, said the GOP undermines its own credibility by focusing on impeaching Biden.
“They promised that they have the goods on corruption, and they go between calling him sleepy Joe and corrupt Joe. I know people are sleepy. I know people are corrupt. I don’t think you can be both,” he said. “I think that just reflects that they don’t know how to define him and they’re still struggling to do that.”
The White House bulked up its legal team and communications staff in anticipation of the GOP-led House’s aggressive use of investigations and impeachment threats against members of the Biden administration. It mocked the threat last week by Republicans to launch a formal inquiry into Biden as a strategy to impeach “someone… somewhere… for something.”
Biden at an event in Maine on Friday tied the push to his economic record.
“While there’s more work ahead, earlier this week, the Washington Post suggested Republicans may have to find something else to criticize me for now that inflation is coming down. Maybe they’ll decide to impeach me because it’s coming down. I don’t know. I love that one,” Biden said.
Biden’s son Hunter plead not guilty earlier in the week to misdemeanor tax offenses after a plea deal fell apart that would have seen him avoid felony firearm charges.
“We’ve been in the Oversight committee for the last seven months and say what you will about Hunter Biden, who was clearly a troubled and drug addicted man, no one has laid a glove on Joe Biden and no one has connected Joe Biden to any credible allegations of corruption,” Raskin said.
Staff writers Joey Garrison, Rachel Looker and Ken Tran contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats link Trump indictments with GOP quest to impeach Biden