It’s not Hunter Biden’s scalp they want. Rather, the House GOP caucus is poised to launch a two-year crusade to tarnish President Joe Biden’s character—and lower his poll numbers—just like they did with Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi hearings prior to her 2016 candidacy.
But things are different this time around—Democrats aren’t going to assume that voters can see through the partisan bluster, and are mounting a war room operation outside the White House. The Congressional Integrity Project (a pointed moniker, to be sure) will try to fend off the Republican barrage, and go on the offensive in the information war.
The existence of the newly revamped group, first reported by Politico, is an effort to mount a 21st-century war room with a response team that can “expose the political intentions behind the investigations targeting the White House,” says Leslie Dach, a senior adviser to the CIP, who is working with founder Kyle Herrig and longtime political activist Brad Woodhouse. All three have deep Democratic Party ties.
“This is a battle over narratives, and we believe we can win that war,” says Dach. “They’re (the GOP) saying it in plain English, they’re trying to hurt Joe Biden. It’s the Trump playbook of personal attacks.”
The group is funded by independent donors and foundations, and as a C-4 designated group, it does not disclose its donors. While independent of the White House, it is in close touch with Biden aides.
Kentucky Republican Jim Comer, the incoming chair of the House Oversight Committee, didn’t waste any time saying the quiet part out loud. Once the razor-thin GOP majority was confirmed, he said at a press conference, “I want to be clear, this is an investigation of Joe Biden, that is where the committee will focus in this next Congress.”
Hunter Biden provides the cover for an investigation into “whether the president is compromised or swayed by foreign dollars,” said Comer.
That kind of admission cost Kevin McCarthy the speakership in 2015 when he told Fox News that the House Select Committee on Benghazi was created to lower Hillary Clinton’s polls. His forthrightness was widely seen as a gaffe. Until McCarthy let the truth slip, Republicans insisted the long-running investigation had nothing to do with politics. Rep. Jim Jordan (one of the most bombastic GOP members) had his moment more recently when he said Trump would be the candidate again, “and we need to make sure that he wins.”
“I think the American people see the hypocrisy, but we’ll be showing it to them,” says Dach, who oversaw the Democrats’ successful messaging on health care that is credited with winning the House in 2018 and 2020. “There’s a simple story to tell, and you have to tell it every day.”
The updated war room harks back to the self-described “Masters of Disaster,” referring to two Clinton administration aides (Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani) who successfully steered the White House response to GOP attacks during the 1990s, in part by selective leaking to the media and generally outsmarting the other team.
Counterattacking became the hallmark of the Clinton White House—and it worked. Democrats gained seats in the House in the 1998 midterms despite investigations into Whitewater (an Arkansas land deal that became shorthand for various scandals) and the Republican House voting to impeach Clinton. “Investigate the investigators,” is central to the CIC’s mission, and it is reminiscent of the negative coverage the Clinton team directed at investigator Kenneth Starr during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.
Massive overreach almost always backfires, yet no one escapes unscathed. Sling enough mud and some is bound to stick.
Only three House Republicans in the upcoming 117th Congress were serving during the Clinton presidency. “The vast majority doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of how GOP investigations backfired,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont-McKenna College whose views were informed by working as a political operative on Capitol Hill before going into academia. “Unless they come up with some dramatic new information that directly involves President Biden, this tactic is unlikely to succeed and may well backfire.”
“The Democrats know what’s coming,” he adds. “It’s the A team versus the gang that can’t shoot straight.”
McCarthy—the presumptive next House Speaker—has to stick with the Trump playbook if he wants to lead his caucus. “I don’t think he’ll go down in history as a political mastermind, but this is something that the base wants, even though he may have some inkling it won’t succeed with the general electorate,” says Pitney. One bright spot: “It gives them something to talk about instead of delivering some real answers on inflation,” which is what Republicans campaigned on solving and will soon realize, if they haven’t already, that there’s not much they can do about it.
Having an outside group take on the rapid response of countering GOP attacks in real time will help insulate Biden personally and politically from the fight. “It will be emotionally tough on Biden to see his son tarnished day in and day out,” says Pitney. “I don’t think they’ll find anything that implicates him (President Biden) in improper activity, but it will still be tough on him as a loving father.”
Hunter Biden has been under investigation since late 2018 in Delaware for tax violations stemming from his lucrative role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and for his dealings with a Chinese energy company. After he learned he was under investigation, he took out a loan to pay $1 million in back taxes, but that doesn’t absolve him of other potentially damning charges.
So far, the judicial system is working. Former Attorney General Bill Barr resisted President Trump’s entreaties to name a special counsel. And after Biden was elected, Attorney General Merrick Garland kept the Trump-appointed U.S. District Attorney, David Weiss, in place in Delaware to complete the investigation, exempting him from the customary request for resignations when a new president takes office.
Hunter Biden’s laptop, which he left at a Delaware computer shop and never returned to retrieve, has become the centerpiece of conspiracy theories about how he was ripping off the taxpayers and trading on his father’s name. The details are murky but like Hillary and Benghazi, it is a scandal that keeps on giving. The difference is that this time around, Democrats won’t be on their heels playing defense. They’re preparing to punch back.