US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has announced he is launching an impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden, yielding to mounting pressure from former President Donald Trump and his allies.
McCarthy said on Tuesday that the House investigations into the Biden family’s business dealings this year have uncovered a “culture of corruption” that warrants deeper review.
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“These are allegations of abuse of power, obstruction and corruption,” McCarthy told reporters outside his office at the United States Capitol. “That’s why today I am directing our House committee to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.”
McCarthy said he will direct the chairmen of the House Judiciary, Oversight and Ways and Means committees – which have been working together for months on various probes related to the Biden family – to lead the impeachment inquiry.
Here’s all you need to know about the impeachment push and what happens next:
What is an impeachment inquiry?
An impeachment inquiry is an investigation of possible wrongdoing by a federal official, such as the president of the US, Cabinet officials or judges. The process is written into the Constitution and is the most powerful check that Congress has on the executive branch.
While the House of Representatives wields the power to impeach a federal official, only the Senate has the ability to convict and remove an individual from office.
To date, no president has ever been forced from the White House through impeachment. But former Republican President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 as the House was preparing to take a vote on impeachment articles against him.
Why are Republicans pursuing impeachment against Biden?
Since gaining a slim House majority in January, House Republicans have aggressively investigated Biden and his son Hunter, claiming evidence that they engaged in an influence-peddling scheme. The allegations echo those that Trump has made for years against Biden and his family.
Republicans have focused much attention on an unverified tip to the FBI that alleged a bribery scheme involving Biden when he was vice president under Barack Obama.
The bribery claim, which emerged in 2019 and was part of Trump’s first impeachment, relates to the allegation that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor to stop an investigation into Burisma, the oil and gas company where Hunter Biden was on the board.
Democrats have reiterated that the Department of Justice investigated the Burisma claim when Trump was president and closed the matter after eight months, finding “insufficient evidence” to pursue it further.
Other countries were also pushing for the sacking of the Ukrainian official, viewing him as corrupt. And a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s has testified to Congress that the bribery allegation is untrue.
Nonetheless, three House committees have been pursuing lines of inquiry related to the president and his son, including the ways that Hunter used the “Biden brand” to advance his business with foreign clients.
They have also delved deeply into the Justice Department investigation into the younger Biden, citing whistleblower testimony, to suggest that Hunter has received special treatment.
And while Republicans have sought to directly connect Hunter Biden’s financial affairs to his father, they have failed to produce evidence that the president directly participated in his son’s work, though he sometimes had dinner with Hunter Biden’s clients or said hello to them on calls.
Does this mean Biden will be impeached?
Not necessarily. While all inquiries opened in recent history have resulted in the impeachment of a president, Republicans have been treading carefully around the term and its potential political implications.
To impeach Biden, the House would have to approve at least one impeachment charge against him, which requires a majority vote. An impeachment inquiry can also be closed without charges being brought.
McCarthy has said an impeachment inquiry is necessary to ensure Congress can use the full weight of its oversight authority to pursue its investigation of the Biden family.
“Everyone should understand, impeachment is not the goal,” Representative Darrell Issa, a senior Republican on House Judiciary Committee, one of the panels tasked with investigating Biden, recently told reporters. “Impeachment is a way of saying this is not a legislative oversight, but in fact an oversight of possible wrongdoing.”
Regardless, the inquiry will loom over Biden as the probe potentially drags into next year when the president, who is running for re-election, confronts a Republican field led by Trump, who was impeached twice.
What evidence do they have?
House Republicans led by Representative James Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, have obtained thousands of pages of financial records from various members of the Biden family and their associates through subpoenas to the Department of the Treasury and various financial institutions.
Comer has repeatedly claimed — without substantial evidence — that there is enough in those documents to draw a clear line between Hunter Biden trading on his father’s name and policy decisions Biden made while vice president. No such connection has been proven.
Comer also joined forces in June with the Republican chairmen of the Judiciary, and Ways and Means committees to launch a larger investigation into a years-long Justice Department probe of Hunter Biden.
The FBI and IRS have been investigating Hunter Biden for years and the case appeared headed toward a plea deal around the middle of the year, until a judge rejected the terms of that agreement. Hunter Biden has since entered a not-guilty plea on tax charges.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland last month appointed the prosecutor investigating Hunter Biden as a special counsel, likely extending the investigation further.
What has the White House said?
The White House condemned McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry announcement on Tuesday, with spokesman Ian Sams calling it “extreme politics at its worst”.
“House Republicans have been investigating the President for 9 months, and they’ve turned up no evidence of wrongdoing,” Sams wrote on social media.
House Republicans have been investigating the President for 9 months, and they've turned up no evidence of wrongdoing
His own GOP members have said so
He vowed to hold a vote to open impeachment, now he flip flopped because he doesn't have support
Extreme politics at its worst
— Ian Sams (@IanSams46) September 12, 2023
What have Democrats said?
Several Democratic lawmakers have come out in defence of Biden, saying the president did nothing wrong and accusing Republicans of seeking to use the impeachment inquiry to distract from Trump’s own legal troubles.
The former Republican president, who remains the frontrunner in the GOP’s 2024 presidential race, faces four separate criminal indictments.
“The evidence shows President Biden engaged in no wrongdoing,” Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The Republicans’ forlorn and doomed impeachment inquiry is nothing but a political stunt extracted by extremists and driven by Donald Trump—the truth and the Constitution be damned.”
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also called the inquiry “absurd”. “The American people want us to do something that will make our lives better, not go off on these chases and witch hunts,” he told reporters.
How will the impeachment inquiry work?
McCarthy said he has asked Comer to take the lead on the impeachment inquiry, working alongside House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and House Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith.
While McCarthy had previously said the House would hold a vote to launch the inquiry, he made no such promise on Tuesday.
The US Constitution does not require a vote to start an impeachment inquiry, and neither do the rules governing the House. But authorising resolutions have been passed in previous presidential impeachments.
Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, reporting from Washington, DC, on Tuesday afternoon, said it is unclear whether McCarthy would have had enough votes in the House to launch an official impeachment inquiry.
Some House Republicans are opposed, saying there is insufficient evidence against the Democratic president. “However, McCarthy says there’s still more to look into and that’s why he’s launching this inquiry,” Zhou-Castro said.
Once an impeachment inquiry is complete, the House has traditionally tasked the Judiciary Committee — the panel authorised to introduce articles of impeachment — to hold hearings and draft impeachment charges.
Why did the inquiry announcement happen now?
McCarthy is under “intense pressure” from right-wing Republicans who have threatened to remove him from his House speaker role if he does not pursue an impeachment inquiry against Biden, Zhou-Castro reported.
That includes several allies of Trump, including Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene.
Minutes after McCarthy made his announcement, a top Republican critic stood on the House floor deriding the inquiry as “a baby step” and reviving the threat of ousting the speaker. “We must move faster,” said Representative Matt Gaetz.
McCarthy is also trying to stave off a potential federal government shutdown: Funding is set to run out on September 30 – the end of the federal fiscal year – and Congress must pass new funding bills or risk a shutdown and the interruption of government services.
How long will the inquiry take?
There are no rules to how long an impeachment inquiry can or must last.
The probe into Biden could last as short as a few months or as long as a year, depending on what McCarthy and other Republican leaders believe is the right time to conclude or move to articles of impeachment.
The only real deadline would be the end of this Congress, which is January 2, 2025.
What happens if Republicans do decide to impeach?
If Republicans decide there is enough evidence of wrongdoing and abuse of power by Biden to move forward, the Judiciary Committee would likely mark up the articles of impeachment.
If those articles are voted out of committee by a simple majority, they would come to the House floor where a majority vote would be required to impeach Biden.
Only three other presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Trump, who was impeached twice.
The impeachment charges would then move to the Senate, where Democratic leaders would likely have no choice but to hold a trial.
The trial is similar to what is seen in the US legal system, with the senators acting as jurors and select House members acting as prosecutors, or impeachment managers. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over that process.
If the Senate approves an article of impeachment with a two-thirds vote of “guilty”, the president is convicted and removed from office. If all the articles are rejected, the president is acquitted.
If Biden were convicted by the Senate, he would be the first president to ever be removed from office. But such an outcome seems unlikely, given that Democrats have a 52-48 majority.