The list of investigative priorities for the House Judiciary Committee read like a task sheet for Fox News that new chairman Jim Jordan sent to the Justice Department earlier this month.
And that was it before Jordan has repeatedly insisted to James Comer, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that the FBI colluded with “Big Tech” to undermine former President Donald Trump by “suppressing” information about Hunter Biden’s laptop before the 2020 election.
That was before reports broke that Kevin McCarthy had promised far-right members of his caucus to secure votes as speaker that he would allow investigations into the Justice Department’s handling of rioters who rioted in support of Trump on Jan. 6. It was also before McCarthy threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Two months before taking office, the new House Republican majority has signaled that its investigative agenda will focus on the concerns of the former president and his powerful supporters. But he charted that course immediately after the midterm elections, in which voters outside key conservative states sent a unique signal by repeatedly rejecting Trump-backed candidates in high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races. The contrast shows why the GOP’s plans for aggressive investigations by President Joe Biden could pose as much political risk to investigators as they do to targets.
House Republicans and their allies are confident the investigation will weaken Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential election. “It’s not just superficial stuff — it’s damaging stuff,” former Republican Representative Tom Davis, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told me.
But the new majority’s echo-chamber focus on airing its conservative obsessions risks stamping the GOP as more of Trump’s party, as more Republican leaders and donors demonstrate the need to move away from it.
“All these people come out and say, ‘Turn the page; move forward”… and I think if you have some of that, that’s really a problem [House] members will continue to look back and embrace Trump, which is what we’ve seen most of the Trump nominee stick their heads toward,” former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent told me.
The choices about what and how to probe GOP leaders encompass the larger challenge they will face in running the House. This month’s midterm elections left the GOP with a smaller-than-expected majority in the House. The results also created a kind of fragmented group of personalities operating with very different political motivations.
The majority of House Republicans represent districts in Trump’s home country: 168 of them have seats where Trump won 10 percent or more in 2020. Another three dozen lawmakers represent more marginally Republican seats that Trump won by less than 10 points two years ago.
But the GOP majority is confident about what will happen in 2020 from the 18 members who won districts that voted for Biden (when all final votes are counted). Of those 18, 11 are in New York and California alone – the two states most likely to see significant increases. It’s tougher for Republicans in a presidential election year than it is in a midterm election.
Democratic consultant Meredith Kelly, a former communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says it’s critical for Republicans from hard-core Trump districts to demonstrate a commitment to confronting Biden at every turn to avoid potential primary challenges from their right. But, as Dent told me, Republicans who are wary of holding Biden seats have the “opposite” desire: “They have to have bipartisan wins and wins.”
Amid this cross-pressure, many analysts are second-guessing North Carolina Democratic Rep. David Price, a political scientist who has written several books about Congress, that the new GOP House majority won’t be able to pass much legislation. The problem, Price told me, isn’t just the partisan and ideological divide in the GOP caucus, but also that its members don’t have “an agenda that they’re promoting or committed to.”
All members of the GOP caucus could agree on legislation to extend Trump tax cuts, encourage more domestic energy production or increase funding for border security. But Republican resistance in blue and purple districts could derail many of the right’s most ambitious legislative goals, such as repealing elements of Biden’s Anti-Inflation Act, enacting a national abortion ban and forcing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
With limited legislative options, House Republicans may see a relentless investigation of Biden and his administration as the path of least resistance to unify their caucus. Several observers in both parties told me that all parties in the GOP would support efforts to investigate the White House’s policy record. Such targets could include the administration’s handling of border security, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and how to allocate clean energy tax credits and loan guarantees established by the Inflation Reduction Act.
However, Republicans have already said that they are unlikely to stop at such conditional targets.
In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this month, Jordan warned of future investigations into the Justice Department’s handling of Project Veritas; allegations that the department targeted conservative parents as “domestic terrorists” for their actions at school board meetings; and the department’s discretion in choosing to execute a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago.
In a press conference with Jordan last week, Comer said evidence from the GOP’s investigation into Hunter Biden’s business activities, including data from his laptop, “raises troubling questions about whether President Biden is a national security risk.”
Asked at that press conference about reports that McCarthy had undertaken an investigation into the harassment and treatment of the January 6 rioters, Jordan refused to deny it, instead reiterating his determination to investigate all instances of alleged politicization at the Justice Department. At one point, Jordan, a staunch defender of Trump through his two impeachments, launched an impassioned attack on federal law enforcement that echoed a long list of Trump’s familiar complaints. “When will the FBI stop interfering in elections?” Jordan declared excitedly.
Jordan doesn’t even represent the outer fringes of conservative ambitions to use House investigations to settle scores for Trump. Earlier this week Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted this When Republicans capture the majority, they must “take ownership @January6thCmte and release every second of footage that will vindicate our Patriots!”
That may be a bridge too far, even for McCarthy. But as he struggles to overcome conservative opposition to his bid for speakership, he has already bowed to the demands of Trump country members, who make up the dominant bloc in his caucus. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s report promising to allow some investigation into the treatment of the January 6 rioters was one example. Another was spotted on the Texas border this week. McCarthy went beyond promising an oversight of the Biden administration’s border record to float the more inflammatory (and Fox-friendly) notion of impeaching the Majors.
Dent, a former GOP representative, told me that on all of these fronts, House Republicans risk pushing control to the point of confrontation, which could hurt their own members from the fringes at least as much as it has hurt Biden, especially when it involves what he describes as broadcasting. if it does. Trump complaints. “These rabbit holes are just full of political danger in these more moderate districts,” Dent said.
Democrats hope the upcoming GOP probe will alienate more voters than excite them. Several Democratic strategists told me that focusing on such conservative causes would both highlight the most extreme Trump-friendly voices in the Republican caucus, like Jordan and Greene, and tap swing voters to distract them from kitchen-table concerns.
Leslie Dach, a veteran Democratic communications strategist who serves as senior counsel at the Congressional Integrity Project, a group currently mobilizing to respond to the probe, told me that GOP polls will identify the party with the same polarizing style of Trump-like politics. In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, voters simply rejected it. “We’ve seen in this election that voters are rejecting the Trump playbook and MAGA policies, but that’s exactly what they’re going to see in these hearings,” he said.
Congressional investigations always carry the risk of revelations that could damage or embarrass Biden and other officials. And whatever they find, the investigations also promise to divert significant amounts of the administration’s time and energy. The White House has already set up a unit in the counsel’s office to respond to inquiries. Cabinet departments are trying to do the same.
Recognizing the potential political risk, several newly elected Republican representatives in Biden’s districts have already urged their party to move slowly on investigations and prioritize action on economic issues instead. Their problem is that McCarthy has already given every indication that his caucus will prioritize the maximum confrontational demands of the pro-Trump majority.
“If past is precedent, Kevin McCarthy is going to be more of a ruby-red Republican base and pro-investigation, pro-culture war,” Kelly says. “He never stood out.” That means new members from Biden-leaning districts, which give the GOP a narrow majority, have almost as much reason to sweat as the Biden administration over the plethora of investigations House Republicans are preparing to open.