Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Analysis | How House Republicans and Fox teed up a major threat to democracy

Analysis | How House Republicans and Fox teed up a major threat to democracy

As soon as Republicans won control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, the party pledged to launch an investigation into President Biden. Even before the 2020 election, there had been efforts to portray Joe Biden as intertwined with nefarious activity conducted by his son Hunter; now, they had the power to do something about it.

Once the party got the gavel, they dove right in. House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) was among the most fervent, making claims about Biden and his family that were quickly amplified in and championed by conservative media — and particularly by Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo. By September, embattled House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) acceded to demands that a formal impeachment inquiry begin.

It went nowhere. In the 10 months since, there have been two public hearings, neither of which offered significant evidence linking Biden to his son’s business activity. Hunter Biden was convicted of a crime, but not one that was uncovered by Comer or other House Republicans. A central allegation promoted by Comer — and regurgitated endlessly by Bartiromo — was discredited when the person making it was charged with having lied about it. That was only the most visible example of Comer-driven claims backfiring.

Fox News lost interest in the subject, with discussions of Biden and impeachment dropping from more than 800 in December to about 40 last month. In May, Bartiromo hosted Comer to discuss the status of the probe; he offered the same litany of unproven allegations he’d offered months before. (Three of the five shows that discussed impeachment the most over the past two years? Bartiromo’s shows on Fox News and Fox Business and Sean Hannity’s prime-time show.)

One obvious reason the effort has receded is that the political utility of the probe has declined. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the co-leaders of the inquiry, had started to pivot to questions about Biden’s age in March. Last month’s debate amplified the saliency of that issue, muting the utility of the flimsy accusations about Joe and Hunter Biden.

In an interview with Punchbowl News, Comer pledged to release the results of his probe but admitted there wasn’t much use in doing so immediately.

“Why would you do anything right now?” he argued. “Napoleon said ‘Never invade when the enemy is in the process of destroying themselves.’ ”

(That’s not exactly what Napoleon said.)

Instead, Comer said in an interview on Newsmax on Thursday, the results of the Republicans’ “credible” investigation would be “turn[ed] over to the next attorney general.”

Meaning, of course, one appointed by Donald Trump. All of those months of effort on his part and the stoking of the fire by Hannity and Bartiromo would give a Trump appointee putative ammunition to bring criminal charges against a defeated Joe Biden.

Should Trump win November’s election and effect such an indictment, he’d have the support of most Republicans. Research conducted by the group Bright Line Watch, using polling conducted by YouGov, found that nearly three-quarters of Republicans support Trump prosecuting Biden and his family. Fewer than half of Americans overall do.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans think that he (or “the next Republican president”) should do so “in response to the indictments of former president Donald Trump.” That makes sense, given that three-quarters of Republicans think that Biden directed the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies.

He didn’t. Bright Line Watch also surveyed hundreds of academics who specialize in political science. Among that group, only 2 percent agreed that Biden was using the Justice Department to target his enemies.

Those experts were also asked to evaluate what events might constitute significant threats to American democracy. Even before the Supreme Court’s recent decision, the vast majority suggested that granting sweeping immunity to presidents would endanger democracy. In the most recent polling, more than 9 in 10 held that position.

Equivalently worrisome in their eyes? Trump prosecuting his enemies should he win the White House. Fully 96 percent of political scientists included in the survey identified this as a threat to democracy; a large majority called it an “extraordinary” threat.

Comer insists to anyone who will listen that his probe demonstrated Biden’s criminal culpability. Many of his colleagues have been unconvinced, one reason no actual impeachment resolution has emerged. So, with that skepticism lingering and Biden’s campaign foundering for unrelated reasons, the impeachment inquiry has been back-burnered. Its findings have been positioned by Comer as an indirect reason to vote for Trump.

Should Trump return to the presidency, he’ll have a putatively objective analysis he can hand to his attorney general to get what he views as retribution against his predecessor. It would seem like a natural step to him and his allies — which is precisely the sort of degradation that political scientists are concerned about.

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