Launching Impeachment Inquiries: Reviewing What Happened in 2019 and 2023
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reneged on his promise not to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden without having a full vote by the House of Representatives. When defending his reversal, McCarthy blamed his predecessor, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
“Nancy Pelosi changed the rules and the precedent,” McCarthy said on Sept. 13, when responding to a reporter who asked how he justified not holding a vote before launching Biden’s impeachment inquiry on Sept. 12.
However, Pelosi has pushed back, saying in television interviews that she did hold a vote on the impeachment inquiry into then-President Donald Trump in 2019.
“I say that that’s hogwash. I mean it’s ridiculous, and I don’t know why the press keeps repeating it,” Pelosi said while responding to McCarthy’s claim during an MSNBC interview on Sept. 14. “Don’t blame it on me. Just take responsibility for what you are doing there, and don’t misrepresent the care that we took, the respect that we had for the institution to go forward in a way that really addressed the high crimes and misdemeanors of Donald Trump.”
To be clear, there was no House vote before Pelosi announced, in September 2019, the start of an impeachment inquiry into allegations that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden, Trump’s political foe. The vote came over a month later, when Democrats leading the inquiry were ready to pass a resolution laying out the procedures for the next phase of the impeachment investigation that had already begun.
In the time between her announcement and the passing of the resolution, Pelosi said her caucus was preparing for a vote by developing the facts necessary to make a case for impeachment. But the delay in voting wasn’t a change in “the rules and the precedent,” as McCarthy claimed.
To sort out the conflicting statements, we will review what happened this year, under McCarthy, and what happened four years ago, under Pelosi.
An impeachment inquiry is an investigation into potential wrongdoing that may be grounds for removing a federal official from office via the impeachment process.
As we have written, McCarthy originally told the conservative Breitbart News website that he would require the House to vote on opening an impeachment inquiry into Biden.
“To open an impeachment inquiry is a serious matter, and House Republicans would not take it lightly or use it for political purposes,” Breitbart News quoted McCarthy saying in a story published Sept. 1. “That’s why, if we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, it would occur through a vote on the floor of the People’s House and not through a declaration by one person.”
Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 12, McCarthy went back on his promise and unilaterally announced an impeachment inquiry.
“House Republicans have uncovered serious and credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct. Taken together, these allegations paint a picture of a culture of corruption,” McCarthy said in his remarks. “That’s why today, I am directing our House committees to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. This logical next step will give our committees the full power to gather all the facts and answers for the American public.”
McCarthy said the Republican chairmen of the House oversight, judiciary, and ways and means committees will lead the inquiry, which is largely an extension of an already eight-month-old investigation into Biden and the international business dealings of his family members, particularly his son, Hunter.
So far, Republicans on the oversight committee leading that investigation have not produced evidence that shows Joe Biden participated in his family’s business deals, that he benefited from the deals or that he ever used his position as then-vice president to facilitate any of the deals.
Due to the lack of evidence, even several House Republicans have publicly said that the impeachment inquiry into the president should not proceed — suggesting that there likely would not be enough votes to approve the inquiry if McCarthy brought it to the floor for a vote at this time.
Pelosi said not having the support of a majority of the House is one reason McCarthy may have changed his mind about having a vote.
But Pelosi, who was the House speaker in 2019, also proceeded with an impeachment inquiry without holding a vote first.
Democratic-led House committees had been investigating Trump administration activities for months. But Pelosi said she was compelled to start the impeachment inquiry after an intelligence community whistleblower alleged in an August 2019 complaint that Trump, ahead of the 2020 presidential election, had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a July 2019 phone call, to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” according to the complaint.
Trump’s actions had revealed his “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said while making her announcement on Sept. 24. “Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry. I’m directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”
But it was not until about five weeks later, on Oct. 31, that the House voted on a resolution establishing procedures for those committees to “continue their ongoing investigations as part of the existing House of Representatives inquiry into whether sufficient grounds exist” to impeach Trump.
The resolution passed by a vote of 232 to 196. No Republicans supported it, and two Democrats opposed it.
Then, on Dec. 10, Democrats introduced two articles of impeachment against Trump. Eight days later, the House — for only the third time in history — voted to impeach the sitting president, for abuse of power (230 to 197) and obstruction of Congress (229 to 198).
But Trump was acquitted of those charges on Feb. 5, 2020, after a Senate trial.
McCarthy, who was the House minority leader in 2019, was among the Republicans who criticized Pelosi for initiating an impeachment inquiry into Trump before letting the House vote on it.
He introduced a resolution of disapproval, which he said would allow lawmakers to publicly declare if they were for or against the inquiry.
“If Speaker Pelosi refuses to seek approval of the whole House in the critical decision of impeachment — as is longstanding practice and precedent — I will again give all members the opportunity to go on record so their constituents can know where they stand on this issue,” McCarthy wrote in a Sept. 26, 2019, post on the platform then known as Twitter.
“Every Member of Congress should go on record to say where they stand on Speaker Pelosi’s unilateral impeachment. I am once again making a motion to disapprove of her unprecedented actions,” he wrote in a post a day later.
But neither the Constitution nor House rules require a vote before an impeachment inquiry can begin, as Pelosi explained in an Oct. 3 letter responding to McCarthy’s request that she suspend the inquiry into Trump.
Also, in a 2019 report, the Congressional Research Service noted examples of impeachment investigations that were conducted without an authorization vote, as well as examples when the investigation began before an authorization vote was held later.
In the case of President Richard Nixon, for example, the House Judiciary Committee had started the “preliminary phases of an inquiry into possible impeachment” months before the House voted on an authorizing resolution, the CRS report said.
(There was no impeachment inquiry in January 2021, when the House voted to impeach Trump a second time – for “incitement of insurrection” against the U.S. government. Democrats introduced the article of impeachment against Trump on Jan. 11, five days after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, and the House vote was held on Jan. 13, seven days before Trump was scheduled to leave office. The Senate acquitted Trump of the incitement charge on Feb. 13, 2021, after Trump was no longer president.)
In a CNN interview last week, on Sept. 13, Pelosi said that she waited “a few weeks” before calling for a vote in October 2019, so that the investigating committees could gather necessary information about Trump’s actions and make a case prior to bringing a bill to the floor.
“They’ve had what, nine months of collecting information?” Pelosi said about the House Republicans now investigating Biden. “They have nothing.”
It remains to be seen if McCarthy, like Pelosi, will eventually call for a vote authorizing Biden’s impeachment inquiry.