SEPTEMBER 14, 2023
US President Joe Biden’s team has begun to execute an impeachment playbook more than a year in the making: Discredit the investigators while sticking to the business of governing.
Biden’s aides spent the August congressional recess honing their plans after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested in late July he was likely to open an impeachment inquiry.
But they’d been hiring staff and gaming out possible scenarios for months before that, consulting veterans of past impeachments and determining the contours of their response.
The principal objective for Biden’s team is countering what many Democrats fear could become an ingrained narrative of self-dealing about the president – despite a lack of any evidence so far of wrongdoing.
“If you don’t answer it, it can sink into the voter psyche. They’re walking that line,” a person familiar with White House thinking said.
On Wednesday evening, Biden made his first public comments on McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry, linking the inquiry to the upcoming showdown over funding the government. Congress faces a September 30 deadline to keep the government open and McCarthy is facing deep divisions within his own conference about how to handle the matter.
“Well, I tell you what, I don’t know quite why, but they just knew they wanted to impeach me. And now, the best I can tell, they want to impeach me because they want to shut down the government.”
“So look, look, I got a job to do. Everybody always asked about impeachment. I get up every day, not a joke, not focused on impeachment. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to deal with the issues that affect the American people every single solitary day.”
The impeachment inquiry comes at a fragile political moment for the president. Widespread concern about his age and reelection prospects have caused jitters in Democratic circles. Some allies have voiced private concern at how intense attention on his son Hunter Biden could become a drag on him, politically and emotionally.
But Biden’s advisers believe the inquiry announced Tuesday by McCarthy could be used to their advantage if Republicans are viewed as overstepping in their claims or shirking their governing responsibilities, according to officials who laid out their plans.
An impeachment inquiry would give Republicans broad new powers to request documents and testimony about the Bidens. Even an inquiry with shaky foundations lacking support from a majority of lawmakers will still consume time and energy inside the White House.
While House Republicans have so far failed to surface anything showing President Biden profited from his son’s business, they have found that Hunter Biden used his father’s name to help advance deals. A former partner, Devin Archer, testified that there were “maybe 20 times” when Joe Biden was placed on speakerphone during meetings with his and Hunter Biden’s business partners, though said “nothing” of importance was ever discussed during these calls.
Even as Republicans continue failing to produce direct evidence tying the president to his son’s foreign business dealings, some polls already show concern among voters. Sixty-one percent of Americans said in a CNN poll released last week they think Biden had at least some involvement in Hunter Biden’s business dealings, with 42% saying they think he acted illegally, and 18% saying that his actions were unethical but not illegal.
For now, the White House views the situation from a communications standpoint rather than as a legal issue. They have yet to formally hear from any of the committees involved.
“We see this as a political communications battle as opposed to a legitimate impeachment inquiry,” a source familiar with the White House’s strategy said.
The aggressive messaging posture, that source said, represents a recognition that there’s a need to fill the vacuum and push back on Republicans.
With the prospect of a government shutdown looming if lawmakers cannot come to agreement on a new spending package by September 30, Democrats also see an opportunity to point out what they view as a fractured conference unable to perform the basic duties of their jobs.
As early as last summer, the White House began laying the ground to respond to Republican investigations in the event of a GOP takeover in the House of Representatives. In the hours after McCarthy opened the inquiry, the White House launched an aggressive messaging strategy centered on the lack of evidence so far linking the president to anything illegal.
The crux of the West Wing’s message: House Republicans “can’t even say what they’re impeaching him for,” White House spokesman Ian Sams told CNN on Wednesday.
The response strategy taking shape included a blitz of cable news appearances by Sams, social media posts and a letter from the White House to news executives urging them to intensify their scrutiny of House Republicans.
Biden’s campaign also seized on the impeachment announcement, blasting an email with Vice President Kamala Harris’ name telling supporters it was time to “stand behind our president” while criticizing House Republicans by name for launching the inquiry.
“Kevin McCarthy, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and MAGA Republicans just launched a beyond ridiculous impeachment inquiry into President Biden,” the fundraising email reads.
The email is the first of what is expected to be several efforts by the Biden campaign to use the new inquiry to its advantage and raise money off the effort.
The close association between former President Donald Trump and House Republicans who pushed for the inquiry – Trump discussed the matter with members over the past several days – has also provided an opening for Biden’s aides to paint the step as an exercise in MAGA extremism.
Talking points distributed by the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday suggested Biden supporters cast the impeachment as “McCarthy doing Trump’s bidding.”
“As Trump pressured Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans to move forward with a baseless impeachment, McCarthy immediately obliged,” one of the talking points reads.
Still, for all of the preparation, impeachment-related steps are unwelcome for any White House. In the past, those proceedings have become all-consuming distractions, despite best-laid efforts to rise above or ignore. Like during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the Biden White House has sought to separate its response operation from the ongoing work of the administration.
That includes building a team of two dozen lawyers, legislative staff and communications advisers to push back against a potential impeachment. Along with spokesman Sams, the White House last summer named Dick Sauber to serve as a special counsel and Russ Anello, a former Democratic staff director of the House Oversight Committee, as an adviser to response to oversight requests.
Biden’s campaign also brought on Ammar Moussa, an official at the Democratic National Committee, to act as the campaign’s rapid response director whose portfolio includes responding to issues like an impeachment inquiry. The campaign sent around talking points to allies after McCarthy’s announcement, and will continue preparing its surrogates with information on impeachment matters for television appearances.
And a Democratic group, Congressional Integrity Project, has been one of the outside entities leading the charge on messaging against the impeachment efforts, including through polling memos and fact sheets. One of the group’s objectives is targeting the 18 House Republicans in districts Biden won.
“While McCarthy is trying to avoid a vote on an impeachment inquiry to save the Biden 18 from going on the record, the American people deserve to know where the Biden 18 stand on an evidence-free impeachment, and we will hold them accountable for the promises they made to the American people when they ran for their office,” said Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project.
Biden himself has yet to directly weigh in since McCarthy’s announcement, but he made implicit nods to the possibility over the past months, suggesting it was an attempt to distract from an improving economy.
“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,” he said during an event at a manufacturing facility in Maine. “I don’t know. I love that one.”
That comment aside, it’s unlikely Biden himself will make a habit of commenting on the proceedings going forward. He stared ahead without answering when questioned about the matter during an event at the White House on Wednesday focused on efforts to cure cancer.
An element of the White House strategy is keeping him focused on his governing duties, including plans to deliver what the White House has billed as a “major economic address” in Maryland on Thursday. He also continues focusing on foreign policy with a trip to the annual United Nations meetings in New York next week.
“The White House is going to do it from the standpoint of making sure they can answer everything legally from a communications standpoint, while keeping Joe Biden and Kamala Harris above the fray and focused on governing and communicating the domestic agenda,” a source familiar with the matter said.