Biden is subject to an impeachment inquiry. Here's what's different from past cases
Updated December 14, 2023 at 6:30 PM ET
House Republicans voted to formalize an impeachment inquiry into President Biden on Dec. 13, marking an escalation in an impeachment case that is different — both in substance and in process — from the ones that loom large over the legacies of former presidents like Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
When Republicans took power in the House of Representatives, they began trying to find evidence to make the case that the president had personally profited from the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden and that it influenced his official actions.
They have not found that evidence. But the imprimatur of impeachment has increased public focus on their investigation.
"This current attempt to conduct an impeachment inquiry is unlike any others I think we've had in American history, because in the past there's always been some credible evidence of wrongdoing by the president that is part of the complaint against the president," said Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, who has testified as an expert witness in past impeachments.
"But in this situation, we don't have any credible evidence. And instead, this process seems to be what is sometimes called a fishing expedition," Gerhardt said.
The president's son Hunter Biden has been indictedon tax evasion and gun charges. Some Republicans argue those criminal probes have been hampered by political interference and that's another avenue they've pursued without finding a link to President Biden.
In September, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., defended launching the impeachment inquiry in the absence of hard evidence, saying that finding evidence was the point of the inquiry. Many Republicans voting in favor of formalizing the investigation in October said they were hoping it would give the investigative committees more power to obtain documents and testimony.
The substance of the case against Biden is unclear
Under the Constitution, Congress can remove a president from office if it finds that the president committed "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." These are the inquiries from modern presidencies:
- Nixon was accused of obstructing justice by impeding the investigation into the Watergate break-in, abusing his presidential powers to harass his political enemies and refusing to cooperate with the House investigation.
- Clinton lied under oath about an inappropriate sexual relationship with a White House intern and was also accusedof obstruction of justice for trying to keep it a secret.
- Trump, in his first impeachment, was accused of soliciting the interference of Ukraine in the 2020 presidential election and obstructing Congress.
- Trump, in his second impeachment, was accused of inciting an insurrection by lying about the results of the 2020 election, which he lost, and encouraging his supporters to head to the Capitol.
Past impeachments concerned things that happened during a presidency — not before
In Biden's case, House Republicans allege that Biden benefited from the business dealings his son had in Ukraine and China, when he was vice president. The president and White House have denied this, and investigators have not turned up any smoking guns from witnesses or financial records.
That the alleged activity happened before Biden was president makes this presidential impeachment unlike any other in U.S. history, said scholars who spoke with NPR. Keith Whittington, an impeachment expert at Princeton University, said impeachment is supposed to be reserved for grave offenses that present an ongoing threat to the country, making removal from office the only remedy.
"I think it's a much harder challenge to convince members of Congress that it's appropriate and useful to impeach an officer based on prior conduct that occurred prior to their holding office," Whittington said.
Past impeachments happened closer to the activity in question
In the case of Nixon, it took nearly two years from the time of the Watergate break-in to the formal launch of an impeachment inquiry. In the meantime, there were Senate hearings and a special prosecutor digging for evidence. By the time the House voted to launch the inquiry, the vote was widely bipartisan.
With Clinton, the House didn't officially launch its inquiry until independent counsel Kenneth Starr provided documentation that the president had lied under oath and had taken steps to conceal his relationship with the intern, some 10 months earlier.
With Trump's first impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced there would be an inquiry days after she learned that the president had phoned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy two months earlier to try to strong-arm him to announce an investigation into Trump's political rival, Joe Biden. Trump's second impeachment happened a week after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The Biden inquiry breaks precedent in a number of ways, including that there is no known date when the offending activity occurred, because House investigators haven't produced evidence of such an event. But they are investigating the period when Biden's son Hunter was serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, almost 10 years ago.
"The distance now between where Joe Biden is today from the time period in which he's supposedly engaged in misconduct is pretty substantial," said Gerhardt. "It's unique among presidents."
Some past impeachment inquiries began with a formal vote
There aren't many formal rules about the impeachment process itself, including whether it's necessary to first vote on whether to begin an inquiry. "That's mostly a question of politics more than it's a question of constitutional requirements," said Whittington.
In Biden's case, McCarthy launched the inquiry without having a formal vote — a step that had happened for Nixon and Clinton. Then, three months later, the new Speaker Mike Johnson brought a formal launch of the inquiry to a vote, which passed along party lines. There were no Republican defections and there was no support from Democrats.
This was similar to Trump's first impeachment. Then-Speaker Pelosi launched the process on Sept. 24, 2019. At the time, there were some reluctant Democrats who didn't want to be forced to take a tough vote.
Trump's White House counsel and allies, including McCarthy, objected vociferously, saying the inquiry wasn't legitimate because there hadn't been a vote. Ultimately, Pelosiheld a vote on Oct. 31. All but two Democrats voted in favor of proceeding, and every Republican voted against it.
For Trump's second impeachment, there was no impeachment inquiry at all. The House moved straight to voting on an article of impeachment a week after the Jan. 6 insurrection, in a push to impeach Trump before he left office on Jan. 20, 2021.
That impeachment has since been overshadowed by a House select committee that investigated the attack on the Capitol — recommendingthat the Justice Department pursue criminal charges against Trump — and the indictmentof the former president on four counts related to efforts to overturn the election results.
It's unclear how long these impeachment proceedings will take
The House vote to formalize Trump's 2019 impeachment inquiry occurred a little more than a year before Election Day 2020. House Democrats rushed it through in part to avoid a potentially politically unpopular event hanging over their own reelection campaigns.
It's unclear how quickly Republicans plan to proceed for Biden, but Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. — an ally of McCarthy — has said it could be drawn out.
"What I actually want to see is, I want to see a very deep dive, a detailed investigation, no matter how long it takes, and it may take months and months," she told reporters. "It may go all the way to the November election."
An impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one. Getting an impeachment through the House requires a simple majority vote, which means the threshold for impeachment is what the party in power can bear politically, rather than any sort of legal standard.
"Technically speaking, if a party controls a majority of seats in the House, it has the power — the raw power — to bring about an impeachment," Gerhardt said.
Nixon resigned from office before the House could vote on impeachment. But in the cases of Clinton and Trump, once an impeachment inquiry was launched, it ultimately led to the House voting to pass the articles of impeachment.
No president has been removed from office by the Senate.
NPR's Daniel Wood contributed to this report.
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