By Manu Raju, Zachary Cohen, Annie Grayer and Melanie Zanona, CNN
(CNN) — Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been insistent: House Republicans are still gathering evidence and have yet to decide whether to open up a formal impeachment inquiry against President Joe Biden.
“I didn’t say I was doing an impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy recently insisted to reporters.
But many House Republicans privately say that it appears to be a foregone conclusion: Biden will face an impeachment inquiry in the fall and could be just the fourth US president ever charged with high crimes or misdemeanors – and that it might all happen by year’s end.
Republicans say if they don’t move forward with an impeachment inquiry now, it will create the impression that House Republicans have essentially cleared Biden of any wrongdoing over his ties to his son Hunter Biden’s business entanglements, allegations they say show a pay-to-play scheme when the elder Biden was vice president, even as they have yet to corroborate that provocative allegation.
But the accusations alone, they say, are worthy of opening up a formal impeachment inquiry, which McCarthy and top Republicans argue would strengthen the House’s oversight power in legal battles to obtain more documents and testimony – potentially from Hunter Biden himself.
McCarthy has also emphasized to his members that opening an inquiry is not the same as voting for articles of impeachment – a key messaging distinction that could help convince on-the-fence moderates to back an inquiry. Yet one GOP lawmaker who supports impeachment acknowledged that some Republican donors have expressed nervousness about whether that is a smart political move, a concern that has been conveyed to GOP leaders and underscoring the political risks of taking the dramatic step.
But most Republicans think that if they open a formal inquiry, they will ultimately wind up impeaching Biden – especially as they move to shift the focus away from former President Donald Trump’s criminal charges.
“Once the barn doors are open, so to speak, the horses are out,” a senior House Republican told CNN. “You’re not gonna get them back in the barn.”
To move ahead on impeachment, the House is expected to vote to formally launch an inquiry – something that could happen as soon as next month, GOP sources say. At that point, several committees that have played a major role in aspects of the Biden investigation – House Oversight, Judiciary, and Ways and Means – are expected to play major roles in the probe, though it’s unclear if one will take the lead.
“It will happen,” Rep. Tim Burchett, a conservative Tennessee Republican, said of impeachment proceedings. “But it won’t pass the Senate.”
Indeed, even if the House were to impeach Biden, convicting him and removing him from office almost certainly won’t happen in the Senate, where there are 51 members of the Democratic caucus and 67 votes are needed for a conviction. But getting the votes alone in the narrowly divided House won’t be an easy task, given that McCarthy can only afford to lose four GOP votes if all Democrats oppose the effort.
In recent weeks, some senior Republicans have been conducting informal temperature checks to gauge the conference’s appetite for a Biden impeachment, according to a GOP source familiar with the matter. While the votes to open up an impeachment inquiry aren’t there yet, Republicans believe their Hunter Biden probes are gaining traction.
But to move ahead with a formal probe, they’ll have to convince Republicans like Rep. Don Bacon, who hails from a Nebraska district Biden carried in 2020 and will be targeted again by Democrats in 2024. Indeed, already a liberal group, the Congressional Integrity Project, launched on Monday a paid digital ad campaign targeting the 18 Republicans who hail from Biden districts over the GOP investigations, and Democrats expect similar efforts to take shape in the months ahead.
Bacon told CNN the Oversight and Judiciary committees should continue to dig into Hunter Biden’s business affairs and get more facts before moving ahead with any impeachment proceedings.
“It seems apparent that President Biden wasn’t being honest when he denied any involvement in his son’s business dealings,” Bacon said Monday. “Further, it’s apparent tens of millions of dollars were involved that prospered the family.”
Bacon added: “Did the president commit high crimes or misdemeanors? The committees need to do more digging to clarify this. There’s tons of smoke, but let’s verify what’s beneath that all.”
One GOP House source said Monday that there’s also a question of how much more the committees can turn up without launching an impeachment inquiry amid concerns from their voters who have little appetite for more strongly worded letters without taking more direct aim at the president.
Another senior House Republican, who has been fielding calls from fired-up constituents on the issue, told CNN: “Basing it on the handful of colleagues I’ve spoken to over the last two to three days by phone, and the people here, I think there’s a growing sense that people understand we have a responsibility here.”
If the House GOP launches an impeachment proceeding from September until December, as many Republicans suspect, it will follow a similar timeline as Democrats’ first impeachment in 2019 when they charged Trump with abusing his power and obstructing Congress by allegedly withholding aid to Ukraine to press for probes into the Bidens.
The second Trump impeachment proceeding lasted just one week with Democrats charging him with inciting the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Trump was acquitted by the Senate twice.
GOP seeks to tie Biden to his son as Dems rail on ‘desperate effort’
With the House at the beginning of its six-week summer recess, GOP investigators are expected to try to secure more documents as part of its Biden family probe and try to line up more depositions with Hunter Biden’s business associates in the fall.
Rep. James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told CNN on Saturday in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, that the panel would look to bring in additional witnesses after last week’s interview with Hunter Biden’s business partner, Devon Archer.
“Now we’re going to try to bring in some more associates,” said Comer, a Kentucky Republican, noting that his panel planned to release more records this week about Hunter Biden’s business dealings. “We will release more bank records, we’ll do our third bank memo, where we show some interesting wire transfers and some suspicious bank activity that I think the American people will have a lot of questions about.”
What remains unclear: Whether they will be able to prove that Joe Biden directly profited from his son’s foreign business dealings or if Hunter Biden’s entanglements influenced his decision-making while vice president. So far, they have yet to do so – something the White House and Democrats have repeatedly stressed.
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the GOP probe is a “desperate effort to distract everyone from former President Donald Trump’s mounting criminal indictments and deepening legal morass.”
White House spokesperson Ian Sams responded to House Republicans’ impeachment efforts in a statement Monday: “House Republicans should listen to the American people who want them to work with the President to focus on real issues like continuing to bring down inflation and creating jobs instead of relentlessly pursuing partisan stunts that prioritize their own extreme political agenda over improving Americans’ daily lives.”
In his roughly five hours behind closed doors last week with committee investigators, Archer told the committee that Hunter Biden was selling the “illusion” of access to his father, according to the interview transcript. In particular, Archer said there were some 20-plus calls where Hunter Biden placed his father on speakerphone while in the presence of foreign business partners, something Republicans say is clear evidence of potential impropriety even as Archer also said business was not discussed in those interactions.
Both Republicans and Democrats have sought to frame that part of his testimony in a way that supports their diverging political narratives.
Democrats say that Archer’s description clears Biden from his son’s efforts to capitalize on the family name and position in government. Republicans insist the testimony bolsters their case that the president’s “brand” was inextricably linked to shady foreign business deals Hunter Biden sought to profit from.
Republicans also have not provided evidence to corroborate unverified allegations that Joe and Hunter Biden were each paid $5 million in bribes from a foreign business official. Archer told the panel that he was not aware of any $5 million payment to Hunter or his father from the foreign official.
That’s one reason why Republican sources have told CNN that they do not expect the bribery allegation to be a focal point of any impeachment inquiry because it remains unsubstantiated.
Instead, House Republicans will likely lean into claims that Biden has not been truthful about interactions with Hunter’s foreign business partners, pointing to the conversations detailed by Archer, including Biden’s presence at two dinners attended by Hunter and his foreign business associates. While Archer indicated no business was discussed at those dinners, Republicans say it’s evidence Biden lied when questioned about his son’s business dealings in the 2020 campaign.
Another aspect of a possible impeachment inquiry: Whether the Biden administration had undue influence over his son’s criminal case that recently led to the collapse of his plea deal with the Justice Department, sources told CNN. The Justice Department has furiously denied any improper interference, despite the testimony of IRS whistleblowers who argue that the probe was too limited in scope and deviated from normal procedures.
Chasing the money
In the weeks ahead, Republicans plan to continue to probe the money that went to Hunter Biden as part of his business arrangements.
The panel has already subpoenaed six banks for records of Biden family members, associates and their related companies, but has yet to tie any of the payments they presented as being directly connected to the president.
These records have shown that members of Joe Biden’s family, including Hunter received millions of dollars in payments from foreign entities in China and Romania, including when Biden was vice president. For example, bank records the panel obtained via subpoena show that Hunter Biden indirectly received approximately $1 million in various installments from Romania and a Chinese-based energy company, State Energy HK Limited, over the years.
They also have pored over suspicious activity reports to suggest potential wrongdoing by the president’s family members, but such reports are not considered conclusive.
While Republicans say these payments substantiate allegations that Biden family members have enriched themselves off the family name and raise questions about Hunter Biden’s business activities while his father was vice president, their work has not uncovered any illegality about the payments from foreign sources, demonstrated that Joe Biden has been improperly influenced by the financial dealings or shown evidence that the president directly received any of these payments.
Republicans say there’s a lot more to find out.
“A lot of the things the president said about his family’s shady business dealings, we’re proving every day that they’re not true,” Comer said.
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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.