The White House has been gradually preparing for a GOP impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and increasingly feels that it will benefit more from the probe than Republicans will.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t quiet resignation and frustration inside the building.
While West Wing advisers believe independent and swing voters will ultimately turn against GOP leaders for using impeachment as political payback against the president, they also are bracing for a time-consuming, draining probe — one that could create negative headlines and has the potential for unexpected outcomes.
And that’s not the only political hot spot they are gearing up to confront.
Biden aides are also preparing for another looming fight with Republicans over government funding. They believe that standoff will also turn to their favor — especially if it results in a government shutdown. But here, too, there is consternation. Biden aides expressed concern about the damage an extended shutdown could do to the economy and the public’s psyche, especially as Biden struggles to convince voters that the nation’s economic outlook is improving.
“The only problem with [Republicans’] impeachment strategy is they have absolutely no grounds for impeaching the president,” said one adviser to the White House who, like many others interviewed for this piece, was granted anonymity to speak freely about discussions. “The shutdown is a more serious piece of business. But I think the strategy there will be to emphasize we have a deal, and the Speaker needs to live up to his end.”
The dual autumnal dilemmas have already begun to impact the West Wing’s operations. The president and his aides are escalating a push for a short-term funding resolution to keep the government open, while stressing the need for additional money for responses to various natural disasters across the country. They are also planning to use September to focus on Biden’s work to address critical economic issues at home and abroad, in an effort to paint Republicans as either disinterested in resolving a standoff or outright embracing one.
During the past year, meanwhile, the White House has gradually built up a war room to deal with the Republican investigations. About two dozen people — a mix of lawyers, legislative staff and communications aides — have been tasked with coming up with strategies to push back against the GOP probes. As the rhetoric heated up recently, the West Wing was in frequent communication with the House Democratic leadership to prepare for the process.
“Republicans tried a lot of these hits in 2020 and they failed,” said a Democrat close to the Biden campaign. “But in a bid for [Donald] Trump’s 2024 campaign and to exact political revenge, these same Republicans are peddling the same debunked conspiracy theories that have been talked about for about five years. They have been investigated over and over. They have failed to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing by the president and Americans see right through it.”
Biden himself has spent little time dwelling on the likely impeachment inquiry, according to two people familiar with his thinking. But those around him believe that Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s approach to impeachment lacks an overall strategy — and that he may ultimately push ahead with an inquiry solely to placate conservatives angry over the state of government spending.
That, according to thinking within the West Wing, could deepen already stark divisions within the House Republican conference on the issue, potentially forcing McCarthy to either launch an inquiry before winning the full support of his most vulnerable members, or put his speakership at risk of a right-wing backlash.
Biden allies are also betting that the GOP’s growing focus on impeachment represents a tacit admission that years of ongoing probes turned up little. A new inquiry, therefore, would subsequently be perceived by voters as a wasteful fishing expedition.
Even some Republicans acknowledge there is political risk in an impeachment inquiry.
In the midterm election after an impeachment inquiry was launched into then-President Bill Clinton, Democrats picked up a handful of seats in the House, though Republicans still held onto the majority. Newt Gingrich, the speaker at the time, said that House Republicans today still have work to do to persuade Americans that Biden’s impeachment is “inevitable.”
“My first advice is to go slow and be careful and keep unveiling more and more examples of corruption,” he said. “And I say that partly because I think when we did the Clinton impeachment where I think we were we were totally correct in that he clearly had committed a felony, he committed perjury … because we failed to totally convince the American people, we were not able to get the Senate to have a serious trial.”
A spokesperson for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Yet even as they gird for an impeachment battle led by McCarthy, White House officials recognize they will simultaneously need to work with the House GOP leader to avoid an economy-rattling government shutdown in less than a month.
Biden and McCarthy hammered out a deal over the debt ceiling earlier this spring precisely to avoid such a battle. But with conservatives now calling for a renegotiation in pursuit of deeper spending cuts, senior Democrats have grown increasingly concerned McCarthy will feel the need to take a hard line against a short-term bill designed to keep the government open into December.
“They want one, and they’re gonna get it,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said of a government shutdown. “This will be the Freedom Caucus shutdown.”
The White House has no intention of getting Biden personally involved in the day-to-day discussions of this spending battle, aides insisted. House Republicans have far less leverage to extract policy concessions than during a debt ceiling stalemate that put the global economy at risk, one White House official said, meaning the only message Biden will have for McCarthy from here on out is to keep his word and do his job.
“What’s their argument going to be now? The president won’t renegotiate with us?” the adviser to the White House said. “We had a discussion, we cut a deal. Either your word is good or not.”
Biden officials are largely trusting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and top House Democrat Hakeem Jeffries to manage the fraught weeks ahead, with top White House budget official Shalanda Young assigned to keep close tabs on the process behind the scenes.
Aides are also hoping Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will play a more active role. But his recent health episode leaves it an open question as to whether he will. After sitting out the debt ceiling fight, McConnell has made a point of voicing support for a quick resolution in September, bluntly declaring recently that the House GOP’s push for spending cuts is “not going to be replicated in the Senate.”
“Speaker McCarthy should join Senate Republicans, House and Senate Democrats, and President Biden in keeping their promise and funding the government,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said. “A shutdown would hurt our economy, make troops and law enforcement officers work without guaranteed pay, and undermine our ability to respond to natural disasters and combat fentanyl trafficking.”
The White House in the meantime plans to sharpen messaging throughout the month that aims to cast the president as fixated on critical economic issues while Republicans flirt with a shutdown.
In addition to promoting his domestic efforts to lower costs and boost the economy, allies hope Biden’s travel schedule will give him added gravitas. The president will soon attend the economic-focused G-20 summit in India before traveling to Vietnam as part of the administration’s effort to push back on China’s influence in the region. He’ll also meet with world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly toward the end of the month.
Still, officials conceded that there remains an unnerving number of unknowns heading into the next few pivotal weeks — and that chief among them is McCarthy, the GOP leader whose actions remain out of the West Wing’s control. While Biden officials came to view McCarthy as something of a good-faith partner during the debt ceiling talks, they also concluded he was a weak speaker. Since then, his standing with conservatives has only eroded further, raising questions among many Democrats about what drastic action he may feel the need to take to protect his job.
“My hope is we can work together to avoid a shutdown, but there are a number of their conference who would just as soon see the government shut down,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democratic appropriator. “The Freedom Caucus is making demands that would be untenable.”