A storm of investigations targeting leaders of both political parties will shape the 2024 campaign, but risks angering voters who just showed their frustration with their priorities being ignored.
Republicans wasted no time after finally crawling last week to the 218 seats needed to win the House to promise relentless investigations of President Joe Biden’s administration, policies and family. The thin nature of their majority, which takes over in January, is already offering their most extreme members significant leverage over leadership.
In a momentous move, meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland last week named a special counsel to take over investigations into Donald Trump’s hoarding of classified documents and his behavior leading up to the US Capitol insurrection. The decision underscores the gravity of the probes and their threat to Trump but also the extraordinary reality that an ex-president and already declared presidential candidate faces the possibility of indictment during a White House race.
The political reverberations of the investigations into the current and former president will be immense. They could bear on both Trump’s and Biden’s prospects in the 2024 election, should the president run for reelection, and are certain to deepen the political polarization afflicting America.
And they will pose a challenge to both parties since one lesson of the midterm elections was that voters were not happy with the Democrats’ delivery on the economy but didn’t trust radical election-denying Republicans to do better. The aftermath of the 2022 campaign – a competitive presidential race and split control of Congress featuring tiny majorities – now offers either side a chance to grab all the levers of Washington power in 2024 by shaping a fresh message that this time really addresses voters’ needs.
But it is not yet clear how the flurry of investigations will help either Democrats or Republicans satisfy their voters’ most fundamental concerns.
Trump, who has not been charged with a crime, is facing formal criminal probes from the Justice Department that will now be overseen by the special counsel. And the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection, although it has no power to charge Trump, has built up a damning picture of his conduct and is expected to release a final report by the end of the year. Next year, Republicans investigating Biden will be under pressure to demonstrate they are conducting genuine oversight and not simply partisan show hearings for political reasons.
After failing to capture the Senate, Republicans will lack the authority to enact a conservative agenda, so the most obvious way for them to wield power will be in a barrage of House investigations targeting the administration, which they clearly hope will weaken Biden in the run-up to the 2024 election and help the eventual GOP nominee.
“We finally have a check and balance,” Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who is seeking to become the new speaker in January, said at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Already, the incoming GOP majority is promising probes of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, China, the conduct of government health officials during Covid-19, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection, the situation at the southern border, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, Garland and Education Department officials. Also in their sights is the president’s son, Hunter Biden, and claims his business dealings caused ethical clashes for the president himself.
A long string of televised hearings, document subpoenas and demands for testimony is expected, for which the White House, as CNN reported last week, has been preparing for months.
McCarthy, who needs the support of hardline pro-Trump lawmakers to become speaker next year, confirmed in his Republican Jewish Coalition speech and on Fox Sunday that he will block a trio of Democrats – California Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees, respectively.
The move is seen as revenge for when the Democratic-led House stripped Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee posts over her apparent condoning of violent social media posts against Democrats before she was elected. Greene spent part of the weekend retweeting Trump’s historic tweets making false claims of election fraud and misinformation after the ex-president’s Twitter account was restored by the platform’s new owner Elon Musk. Greene is already one of the most visible members of the incoming GOP majority, having launched a bid to end US aid to Ukraine. She also demanded the impeachment of Garland following his appointment of a special counsel.
Investigation and oversight is an essential function of Congress, so McCarthy’s majority will be well within its rights to unleash the machinery of accountability.
At the same time, however, many of the lines of investigation appear highly politicized and some seem to arise out of accusations and conspiracies carried on conservative media more than they spring out of good governance.
The challenge for Republicans will be to leave a broad range of voters, who had already shown little patience for GOP election denialism, with the impression that they are using the power granted to them in the midterms to address issues, like high inflation, that they care about. An out-of-control juggernaut of politicized investigations could harm the GOP by the time of the next election.
New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is expected to become the New Democratic leader after Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated last week she would step down, vowed Sunday to hold the new majority to account.
“We will fiercely and vigorously oppose any attempts at Republican overreach and any Republican extremism,” Jeffries told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
“I’m hopeful that the Republican leadership will take lessons away from the rejection of extremism by the American people all across the land, and not double and triple down on it in the next Congress.”
One goal of the new Republican majority, which will be closely attuned to Trump’s wishes, is likely to be to frustrate or punish attempts by the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the former president, who launched his third consecutive presidential bid last week. And in the same way that McCarthy once implied the GOP’s Benghazi investigations were intended to weaken former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign, the GOP probes will also be taking aim at Biden’s political prospects.
GOP Rep. Jim Comer of Kentucky, the likely next head of the House Oversight Committee, indicated in a CNN interview last week that Republicans would try to connect Hunter Biden’s business dealings in places like Ukraine to his father.
“This needs to be called the Biden investigation and not the Hunter Biden investigation,” he said.
Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House Counsel’s office, accused the GOP of seeking revenge and of mounting politically motivated attacks based on “long-debunked conspiracy theories.”
But the spotlight being trained on Hunter Biden could prove especially painful in a personal sense for his father, whatever its political consequences.
As well as congressional probes, federal authorities are weighing criminal charges against Hunter Biden over a gun purchase and tax issues. In an interview with Tapper last month, the president said he was a proud of his son, who he said had overcome a drug addiction.
Trump’s personal, political and legal exposure to investigations is far more tangible than the level of threat facing his successor. The appointment of Special Counsel Jack Smith last week – to avoid the impression of political interference now that the former commander in chief is again an official candidate – is a mark of the breadth and seriousness of the legal complications that he is facing.
Trump’s early announcement of a 2024 bid was widely seen as partly an attempt to try to insulate himself against possible charges and to portray the investigations as a political vendetta against him. “It is not acceptable. It is so unfair. It is so political,” the ex-president told Fox News Digital last week. He also warned that “the Republican Party has to stand up and fight” – seeking to unite the GOP around him at a moment when his hold on the party is facing its biggest question in years over the poor performance of candidates he backed in the midterm elections.
In the wake of the special counsel decision, several potential 2024 Republican rivals have endorsed the ex-president’s claims that he is being politically targeted as some of them try to appeal to his base. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has criticized Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election in a string of recent interviews, called the appointment of a special counsel “very troubling” in an interview with Fox. Another frequent Trump critic and possible 2024 GOP candidate, outgoing Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said that the special counsel appointment was “not good news for our country.”
And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a once and possible future GOP presidential candidate, said on his podcast that Biden had turned the United States into a banana republic by weaponizing the DOJ against the former president. (During his administration, Trump was repeatedly accused of weaponizing the Justice Department by using it to pursue his political ends and in seeking to influence its investigations – for example, in firing of former FBI Director James Comey.)
Until the special counsel makes his decisions, the investigation into Trump will be a dominant backdrop to his presidential campaign. Already, Trump is using his timeworn tactic of smearing institutions that seek to probe or hold him to account – a process that inevitably damages them in the eyes of millions of his supporters.
A decision on whether to indict a major presidential candidate will be one of the most fateful moments in the modern history of the DOJ and will have enormous legal and constitutional implications.
But the investigation also poses a political threat to the former president. An unusual number of Republicans are increasingly willing to criticize him in public and to argue that the party should turn to another nominee in 2024. An indictment or just a long-running investigation could finally give Republicans, at least in its Washington establishment, an excuse to break with Trump in favor of an alternative candidate not tainted by scandal or caught up in election denialism and the January 6 insurrection.