Right-wing House Republicans have left little doubt that they want to spend the bulk of their time and energy investigating phony conspiracies and made-up scandals. Their main obsession appears to be Hunter Biden, whose very name has become a buzzword in right-wing media. The contents of one of his laptops, revealed in 2020, have inspired a fantastical conspiracy theory that has been comprehensively debunked by, among others, Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs and former FBI agent.
She persuasively applies a “a basic three-part formula” employed by psychologists who study conspiracy theories “for disentangling truth from fiction, one that activates the rational, analytical side, rather than the lizard, fight-or-flight side, of the brain.” Her takeaway: The conspiracy theorists have reached the “temper tantrum” stage of the Hunter Biden “scandal.”
Obviously, there is no legitimate basis for congressional “oversight” of the matter. And that brings us to the current faceoff between the Republican chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, on one side, and 50 or so former intelligence officials, on the other.
In October 2020, these officials crafted a statement that appeared in Politico alleging that appearance of the laptop and emails purporting to relate to Hunter Biden’s time on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
As my Post colleague Glenn Kessler has explained, the statement’s claims — in contrast to news reports and Democrats’ description of the claims — were explicitly limited. “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement — just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case,” the statement cautioned.
Nevertheless, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) sent letters to the signatories, demanding all documents relating to the statement and directing the former officials to appear for transcribed interviews. If they don’t comply, they have been warned, subpoenas will be forthcoming.
Perhaps Republicans imagine the former intelligence officials were put up to signing the statement pointing the finger at Russia as part of a Democratic plot to mislead voters. (Talk about projection!) Whatever the reason for this GOP fishing expedition, it would be a dangerous threat to the First Amendment if Congress could haul in for questioning any private citizen (as the former officials were at the time) to explain an op-ed or open letter.
And, ironically, it would be an illegitimate and inappropriate use of congressional power — a weaponization of government — if every president’s family members and their associates and defenders could be summoned to testify about a made-up controversy.
Several of the signatories are represented by Mark Zaid, who provided me with a copy of a letter challenging the fishing expedition. In a response to the chairmen, Zaid notes that the power of Congress to exercise oversight is not “unbounded.” Citing the 2020 Trump v. Mazars Supreme Court case, Zaid explains that Congress needs a legitimate legislative purpose to demand compliance with a subpoena. And here, “no conceivable legislative purpose” exists, he says, only a “purely political, partisan exercise” that wastes taxpayer money.
Indeed, it is hard to divine any legislative purpose for a Republican-led, contorted investigation of the president’s son. But I cannot say the maneuver surprises me. House Republicans have continually boasted about their plans to investigate President Biden and his family, meddle in ongoing prosecutions and run interference for former president Donald Trump. Now, their admission is being turned against them.
It isn’t clear where this is going from here. Zaid says his clients have voluntarily agreed to produce documents. One signatory, Marc Polymeropoulos, who helped organize the former intelligence officials’ statement, has agreed to sit for an interview. However, should the committees issue formal subpoenas to others or demand the former officials reveal classified information about their past service (which is the basis for their opinions set out in the statement), the issue likely would head to the courts in the first substantial legal challenge to the House GOP’s conspiracy-driven inquests.
The last thing these right-wing congressmen likely would want is a court ruling that their three-ring circus lacks any legitimate legislative purpose and, therefore, cannot compel testimony or document production. A legal defeat for MAGA-inspired investigations (which to date have spectacularly flopped) would be the perfect denouement to Republicans’ inept efforts to harness congressional power for political gain.
If their power to hold hearings is neutered, the absence of a substantive House GOP mission would be laid bare. Republicans would be left to make wild accusations — such as bank failures are due to “wokeness” — advance a hugely unpopular agenda (restricting abortion, raising prescription drug prices) and reveal their disarray, as they have with the debt ceiling.
In standing up to congressmen bent on bullying and intimidating witnesses to score political points, the former intelligence officials will have performed a public service: revealing the feckless little men behind the curtain.