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Opinion: Look who’s weaponizing the government now

Opinion by Julian Zelizer, CNN

(CNN) — House Republicans are weaponizing the government yet again. While a faction of hard-right Republicans in the lower chamber are driving the government towards a shutdown, the House Oversight Committee tried to connect the president to his son’s overseas business dealings in its first impeachment inquiry hearing on Wednesday.

Several of the witnesses called before the committee on Thursday admitted there is no evidence that President Joe Biden has committed impeachable offenses, and the White House has released a statement accusing Republicans of “basing their Biden impeachment stunt on false claims that have been repeatedly debunked.”

Despite the lack of evidence pointing to high crimes and misdemeanors, or any abuse of power during Joe Biden’s time as vice president for that matter, the GOP is moving forward on a fishing expedition to see what they might be able find going into the 2024 election.

The party is bolstered by the many damaging stories that have come out about the president’s son Hunter Biden. Former President Donald Trump, for example, has tried to push an unproven accusation that, as vice president, Joe Biden tried to help his son by pressuring the Ukrainian government to fire the country’s prosecutor general while Hunter Biden served on the board of a natural gas company in Ukraine.

Hunter Biden’s well-documented struggles with addiction have also made him a political liability for his father. And the decision by special prosecutor David Weiss to indict Hunter Biden on two counts of making false statements while purchasing a gun and one count of possessing the gun while addicted to drugs, poured fuel on the fire. (Hunter Biden’s lawyer has defended the president’s son, saying that the indictment was a result of Republicans “pressuring this US attorney to do something to vindicate their political position.”)

But just because Joe Biden has a troubled son is not reason enough to trigger impeachment, a process that should only be initiated when there is clear evidence that a president has abused his power.

While many Republicans will be tempted to point to the two Democratic-led impeachments of former President Donald Trump, those processes stand in stark contrast to what is taking place today. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held off members of her own party, fighting tooth and nail until a whistleblower came forward and there was mounting evidence that Trump had threatened to withhold congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in exchange for political dirt on Joe Biden and his son ahead of the 2020 election. (Trump maintained he didn’t do anything wrong, and the Senate eventually acquitted him).

Pelosi, who was reluctant to trigger an impeachment inquiry, only did so after mounting evidence and public support. In one instance, seven centrist Democrats with national security credentials wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, concluding that the party had no choice but to maintain the checks and balances of the Constitution. Karen Demirjian and Rachael Bade recounted this struggle in their book “Unchecked,” detailing how Democrats moved forward only after the evidence was so damning that Pelosi felt she had no other choice.

The second Trump impeachment was also justifiable, given that the articles were drafted after Trump attempted to overturn a presidential election that he lost, culminating in a violent attack on the US Capitol and death threats against Vice President Mike Pence.

And the current impeachment inquiry certainly does not resemble what the Democratic Congress initiated in 1974, when the impeachment inquiry into President Richard Nixon only started after congressional and legal investigations had exposed massive amounts of evidence — including eye witness testimony from high-level administration officials such as John Dean — pointing to the many ways that Nixon had abused presidential power.

Even the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, long considered an example of a purely partisan attack, was on much more solid ground than was once thought, as the historian Brenda Wineapple argued in “The Impeachers.”

The Tenure of Office Act — the basis of Johnson’s impeachment — was a measure Congress passed to prevent the president from removing some civil officials without approval. It had been put into place to check the president, who was acting in increasingly erratic and dangerous ways to undermine Reconstruction. The Republican Congress only took steps to impeach Johnson after there was growing evidence that he was misusing his authority and violating this act.

The current impeachment is much closer to what happened in 1998. After Independent Counsel Ken Starr failed to get anywhere in a long investigation that explored various avenues of inquiry, he finally closed in on President Bill Clinton’s relationship to White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But even in that case, House Republicans eventually had evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice although most of the public, and many Senate Republicans, rejected the claim that his actions amounted to what the founding fathers had in mind when the wrote impeachment into the Constitution. 

With the current impeachment inquiry, the House GOP is putting the cart before the horse, which is probably why polls show that the public overwhelmingly opposes what they are doing. It doesn’t help that the GOP vowed to impeach Biden as payback for Trump before they won back the House in 2022, flagging from the start that this would be a partisan exercise.

The party is operating on the principle that they don’t need hard evidence to drag President Biden’s name through the mud and create a false sense of equivalency with Trump, who is now facing a total of 91 felony counts across four different criminal cases. Just this week, a New York judge canceled the Trump Organization’s business certification and found Trump and his adult sons liable for fraud for inflating the value of his properties.

It’s ironic that in February, the House GOP created a new committee to investigate the alleged “weaponization” of government by Democrats against the GOP. With a looming government shutdown and an impeachment inquiry with little evidence, it’s the Republicans who are showing us how it’s done.

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