Even before federal agents stepped onto the grounds of Mar-a-Lago on Monday, Republicans in Congress were eagerly preparing their plans to investigate President Joe Biden and his administration ahead of an expected takeover of Capitol Hill after November’s elections.
But the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s south Florida estate—reportedly to execute search warrants related to official document preservation—immediately turned investigations from a top priority into the potential main event of a Republican-controlled Congress next year.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—the presumptive House speaker if Republicans pull off a takeover of the chamber—did not wait for more details to emerge about the raid before calling for Attorney General Merrick Garland to appear for testimony next year.
“When Republicans take over the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned,” McCarthy said on Monday night. “Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
The Department of Justice, which is weighing whether to criminally prosecute the former president, was always going to be in the “crosshairs of oversight” for the GOP, said Aaron Cutler, a former House Republican staff attorney who now heads up congressional investigations work for the law firm Hogan Lovells.
But the FBI raid on Monday, and the lack of public knowledge about the extraordinary move, has “really infuriated” the GOP, said Cutler. “It makes Republicans want to dig in even more to the administration,” he said.
That enthusiastic digging isn’t poised to simply stop at the doors of the DOJ. Over the last year, GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate have publicly outlined dozens of areas where they want to investigate the Biden administration.
Some of those areas are straightforward and could even invite some bipartisan cooperation. Republicans want to dig into the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the often confusing COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; some Democrats could come onboard for those investigations.
But with the GOP mum so far on their legislative agenda, what seems to most excite Republicans right now about a Capitol Hill takeover is something else: investigations primarily designed to hit Biden where it hurts—and damage his political prospects ahead of the 2024 election.
Before Biden even took office, GOP lawmakers began to lay the groundwork for extensive probes into the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter, and have vowed to investigate another investigation: the one being conducted by the House select committee on Jan. 6th.
Republican rank-and-file members, meanwhile, have publicly called for impeaching Biden, along with Garland and other cabinet secretaries like Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas.
“What we’re seeing from what they’re saying is nothing about a legislative agenda if they’re in the majority,” said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow emeritus at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank. “The whole theme here is retribution against people in the Biden administration, ranging all the way from Merrick Garland to Anthony Fauci.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) had another description for the prospect of a GOP majority exercising oversight powers. “It’d be a shitshow on steroids,” he told The Daily Beast.
Gaming out GOP oversight plans is hardly an academic exercise or an entertaining of far-fetched hypotheticals. Given historical trends, redistricting, and Biden’s low approval ratings, Republicans are widely expected to easily capture control of the House; control of the Senate is more of a toss-up.
Republicans need to flip only one chamber, however, to gain access to the committee gavels—and with them, a massive infusion in resources to hire attorneys and investigators—in order to begin creating everyday headaches for the Biden administration.
They could do so on a number of fronts. Investigations into Biden’s family would be the most politically sensitive and the most partisan; a close second would be probes into how Biden and congressional Democrats have themselves probed the abuses of the Trump presidency and Jan. 6.
Beyond that, Republicans are most eager to probe the Afghanistan withdrawal, COVID-19 public health policies, the origins of the virus, and the Department of Homeland Security’s handling of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Among the rank-and-file, there’s serious appetite for using their congressional powers to indulge an investigation into Trump’s obsession—the 2020 election—which leaders have yet to endorse.
The last time Republicans could investigate a Democratic administration, they followed the lead of their base—a move that has only aged more poorly over time. From 2014 to 2016, House Republicans established a committee to investigate the terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
There were legitimate questions to be answered about the government failures that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. But GOP leaders—McCarthy in particular—ended up admitting the probe existed simply to damage Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
Some Republicans acknowledge there’s a risk of going too far again. “I don’t think leadership wants to see Hunter Biden alone on a witness panel getting beaten up for hours on end,” said Cutler. “The Benghazi example, I think folks would understand that’s not really what the American public wants to see.”
Cutler argued McCarthy would “ensure the conference is measured and doesn’t send out subpoenas willy-nilly” if they control the gavels next year. Democrats, in the eyes of many Republicans, went too far in their oversight of the Trump administration.
They outlined dozens of possible investigations before taking the House in 2018; within six months of controlling the chamber, 14 House committees had launched at least 50 probes into the Trump administration, according to NBC News.
Though top Republicans have used their oversight plans primarily as a way to toss out red meat to the GOP base, they have also at least signaled they want to pursue sober, bread-and-butter issues.
Rep. James Comer (R-KY), in line to be the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, promised to POLITICO to bring the panel “back to what its original intent was.”
“We’re going to spend a lot of time in the first three, four months having investigation hearings,” Comer said, “and then we’re going to be very active in the subcommittee process, focused on substantive waste, fraud and abuse type issues.”
Spokespeople for Comer, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)—who’s in line to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on their oversight plans.
It’s fair to say Democrats are not expecting serious-minded oversight next year. Ornstein argued that any suggestion that Democrats’ oversight of the Trump administration—“the most scandal-ridden in the history of the country”—is not remotely comparable to what Republicans are outlining now.
With Republicans seeking to even the score and put political points on the board against Biden, Ornstein said even legitimate oversight avenues like Afghanistan or COVID-19 policies could be tainted. “I don’t hold out a lot of hope that we would have legit oversight,” he said.
The White House has reportedly already begun laying the groundwork to respond to a flood of GOP requests and oversight demands, by beefing up staffing at the counsel’s office and talking about restructuring offices to better counter their adversaries on Capitol Hill should they take over.
Congressional Democrats, who are still fighting to keep control of both the House and Senate, are loath to publicly game out how they would approach the role of the minority—and are incorporating the GOP’s chest-thumping on oversight into their case to voters.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House Oversight Committee, told The Daily Beast that Republicans on the panel “have made it clear they are more interested in promoting former President Trump’s extreme agenda, including spreading election conspiracy theories and launching political attacks on President Biden and members of his family.”
“I’m proud of the Committee’s strong track record this Congress,” Maloney said, “and I believe the American people see that Democrats are working to make their lives better while our colleagues on the other side are focused on scoring political points.”
Huffman argued Democrats “should not spend any time developing a game plan for dealing with them being in the majority.”
“We should be putting all of our efforts into delivering for the American people and making our case to voters as to why these guys are unfit to govern,” Huffman said.
Democrats have happily seized on comments that Republicans have made in response to the raid on Mar-a-Lago—like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call to “defund” the FBI—to bolster that case.
Greene’s comments foreshadow a broader problem for McCarthy and his GOP lieutenants as they close in on the House majority: can they remain in the driver’s seat on sensitive investigations, or will they simply be along for the ride?
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a frequent critic of McCarthy, suggested last December that the days of Benghazi would look quaint by comparison to what he and his allies had planned for Biden.
“It’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan and Trey Gowdy and no real oversight and no real subpoenas,” Gaetz said. “It’s going to be the days of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Dr. Gosar and myself.”