The Crazy Collapse of the House G.O.P.’s Impeachment Case Against Biden

On Tuesday evening, federal prosecutors filed a court document that, in a couple dozen bizarre and ultimately explosive pages, effectively put an end to one of Donald Trump’s great election-year hopes—the impeachment of President Joe Biden. The filing revealed that Alexander Smirnov, a longtime F.B.I. informant who told investigators that Biden and his son Hunter had each received a five-million-dollar bribe from a Ukrainian energy company, had not only invented that claim but had also admitted to passing along bad information about the Bidens from “officials associated with Russian intelligence.”

Smirnov first relayed the sensational and very much unconfirmed bribery claim in a 2020 interview with the F.B.I. This past summer, Republicans pursuing the President released a redacted version of the F.B.I. report that included Smirnov’s allegation. It was their smoking gun, their white whale—the only concrete example they had managed to turn up with a specific person attesting to an actual criminal act on the part of the President. Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and Trump confidant, mentioned the alleged Biden bribe in eighty-five segments in 2023, according to the watchdog Media Matters. (Eighty-five, it should be noted, out of three hundred and twenty-five segments on what Hannity, channelling Trump, likes to call the “Biden crime family”—an average of more than one per night!) On the evening when Senator Chuck Grassley made Smirnov’s now debunked claim public, Hannity somberly told his viewers that Biden had been “very credibly accused of public corruption on a scale this country has never seen before.”

For months afterward, House investigators tried to find evidence of the alleged bribe in Biden’s finances. They couldn’t, of course. As we now know, it didn’t exist.

But the dream dies hard. In December, on a party-line vote, Republicans chose to go ahead with a formal impeachment investigation of Biden anyway. In the days since Smirnov’s arrest on charges of lying to the government, House G.O.P. leaders have deflected, filibustered, and otherwise obfuscated about the whole affair. It “doesn’t change the fundamental facts,” Representative Jim Jordan insisted to astonished reporters. But the embarrassing new reality is the opposite: the F.B.I.’s trusted informant appears instead to have been an inveterate liar who successfully injected Russian lies about the President of the United States into a partisan election-year impeachment inquiry. As if that weren’t alarming enough, the government’s court filing also included the following warning: Smirnov, it said, “is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.” Cue the flashbacks. It’s Russia, Russia, Russia all over again.

It was perhaps no surprise that the House Republicans’ fever dream of impeachment would evaporate. Their revenge play on behalf of the twice-impeached ex-President always seemed more about payback and partisan politics than anything else. Since taking back the House and launching their probe of Biden last year, they have publicly struggled to find any crime—never mind the requisite high crimes and misdemeanors—to fit the preordained punishment. In the course of their shambolic inquiry, many theories of malfeasance by the President had been advanced, from alleged nefarious doings with China, Kazakhstan, Romania, and other countries to Biden’s alleged money laundering on behalf of his brother. But even the probe’s deepest skeptics could not have imagined this latest twist: a fake Ukrainian bribe, seemingly ordered up to fit the Republicans’ darkest fantasies of Biden, and passed along by a source who would eventually admit to spreading lies given to him by Russian spies.

There is much still to unravel about how this came to be. In the government’s court papers this week, Smirnov emerges as an almost comically obvious liar, telling multiple versions of his Biden bribery story, while bragging about contacts with various foreign intelligence services. How is it possible that this guy was an F.B.I. informant for more than a decade? His information was apparently initially checked out by federal investigators years ago and could not be verified, and yet a Trump-appointed prosecutor, Scott Brady, later testified that he found “sufficient indicia of credibility” in aspects of Smirnov’s story to pass it along to another prosecutor, David Weiss, the Justice Department special counsel investigating Hunter Biden. Apparently, a full vetting of Smirnov and his claims was demanded by Weiss only after congressional Republicans made them public—and, when Smirnov did give a formal interview to the F.B.I. in September, the result was not damning proof about Biden but Smirnov’s own arrest.

On the Hill, the sorry saga has not yet caused Republicans to formally abandon their inquiry. But, on Thursday morning, when I spoke with Jamie Raskin, who, as the lead Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, has spent the past year trying to shut down the impeachment folly, he was feeling hopeful that it was now time to “fold up the circus tent” after the long-running “comedy of errors” had turned out to be “a big Russian intelligence op.” James Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has so far stopped short of calling an official halt to the probe, but Raskin said that he had sensed a political shift. “Chairman Comer seems to have given up the ghost on impeachment,” Raskin told me. “They seem to be acknowledging the political math is not there for them.” For vulnerable Republicans running for reëlection this fall in moderate districts, it could well be a “career-terminating event if they were to vote to impeach Biden on pure nonsense,” he pointed out. With the narrowest House majority in recent times, Republicans can afford to lose only a couple of votes anyway.

So perhaps, at least as a practical matter, this has been what passes for a good week in the Trump-addled Republican House. “Smirnov’s allegations were the foundation of the entire impeachment drive,” Raskin told me. Without them, “the impeachment investigation has ended in substance if not actually in form . . . the whole project lies in ruins.”

But I am not fully convinced. In today’s Congress, the fight, somehow, must always go on. For years, Trump and his backers have fed elaborate conspiracy theories about the President and his son to their base. This particular trope about Biden and Ukraine and the bribe that wasn’t is unlikely to die off swiftly. Raskin readily admitted that some Republicans in Congress were likely to keep pressing the matter even after its source had been discredited—“like Confederate soldiers lost in the woods somewhere,” still fighting on long after the war was over. In the way of conspiracy theories, he fears that Smirnov’s takedown may soon end up being portrayed as just another deep-state plot to cover up Biden’s crimes. I suspect it will not be long before this prediction comes to pass.

“We were warned that the credibility of this statement was not known and yet my colleagues went out and talked to the public about how this was credible and how it was damning,” Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who has started occasionally challenging his party in public, said this week. Of course, they were warned. We all were. The point was not the veracity of the accusation but the fact that Republicans had an accusation to make.

Political memory in America is shockingly attenuated. In 2019, Trump was impeached by a Democratic-controlled House for demanding that Ukraine help him politically by digging up dirt on Biden. In the “perfect” phone call that Trump himself publicly released, he pushed Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an inquiry into Biden, referring to allegations that Biden had “stopped the prosecution” of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that had paid Biden’s son to serve on its board, at a time when the then Vice-President was helping oversee U.S. policy toward Ukraine. This is the same conspiracy theory that Republicans have been pursuing in the current impeachment inquiry into Biden, all these years later. It did not matter to them when the charge was dismissed as unproved Russian disinformation back in 2019, and, I fear, it will not matter to them now that this latest iteration of the tale, with its own Moscow angle, has been discredited, too. The circus tent is not coming down; it has taken up permanent residence. ♦

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