Senate Republicans are pouring cold water on the idea that President Biden’s classified documents controversy rises to the level of an impeachable offense, heading off House conservatives looking for revenge after former President Trump’s two trials.
Even before Tuesday’s revelation that about a dozen classified documents had been found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home, GOP senators were cool to the idea of impeachment.
“I don’t think you want to get into where it’s a tit for tat, every two years or four years you’re dealing with impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) told The Hill. “There has to be a really good reason, obviously, the constitutional reasons and grounds for that. So we’ll see where it goes.”
Asked whether Biden’s possession of classified documents has the potential to rise to the level of an impeachable offense, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, gave a simple answer: “No.”
Many Republicans thought the Democrats’ first impeachment of Trump over delaying military aide to Ukraine was a partisan overreach. But that means they are also wary of doing the same thing now that their party has the House majority.
It’s just one of several tension points emerging between Republicans in the two chambers.
Senate Republicans have mostly ignored chatter in the House about impeaching Biden’s secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, or wiping out the tax code and replacing it with a 23 percent to 30 percent national sales tax.
Some Republicans think talk of impeaching Biden will grow in the House, even though GOP senators warn that it’s a bad idea.
House Republicans introduced more than a dozen impeachment resolutions against Biden in the last Congress, and the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee has already initiated an investigation of Biden’s handling of classified documents, which could lay the ground for future impeachment proceedings.
Trump has also come under criticism for a separate classified documents controversy, but House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in an interview with Fox Business argued that Biden’s handling of classified documents was more egregious because the former Republican president at least secured the classified information he held with padlocks.
“That’s much different than what we’re finding now with President Biden, and I think it is severely going to cause him a great deal of trouble in the future as we get more of the truth,” McCarthy told Fox host Larry Kudlow.
A few Senate Republicans entertain the idea that the classified documents found at Biden’s Delaware home and former Washington, D.C., office would lead to a Senate impeachment trial.
“This actually might be an impeachable offense. If there’s a high crime and misdemeanor standard, which there is, this is the closest thing to one in recent years,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “If the special counsel comes up with anything, realizing [Biden’s] a sitting president, I suppose they could draft up what would become articles of impeachment, depending on what they find.”
Cramer said “I personally hate impeachments” but thinks the standard has changed since House Democrats impeached Trump in 2019 after he held up aid to Ukraine to use as leverage to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden’s family’s business dealings in the country.
Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney (Utah), voted to convict on an article of impeachment during Trump’s 2020 Senate trial.
Cramer said “Democrats created an impeachment cycle and we may be in that cycle,” calling Trump’s first impeachment “far-fetched and silly.”
He said House Republicans now need to decide whether they want to keep the impeachment bar as low as they believe Democrats set it in 2019 or whether to elevate it to cover only the most serious crimes.
The documents found at Pence’s home would further muddy any attempt to argue that Biden’s possession of classified documents meets the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Romney on Tuesday said it will be hard for House Republicans to credibly push an article of impeachment against Biden for keeping classified documents at his Delaware home after Pence admitted the same transgression.
“I can’t imagine that’s where it’s going to head with so many people in the same arena,” he said.
Some key Senate Republicans, such as Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (Fla.), are already on record downplaying Trump’s possession of classified documents at his Florida home as a “storage” issue.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday dismissed a question about whether Biden’s possession of classified documents could rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
“I don’t have an answer to that hypothetical. I do think that the Justice Department seems to be willing to treat everybody the same and to try to retrieve the documents, and obviously it’s not a great idea to take classified documents away from the archives. We’ll see how they continue to handle it,” he said.
Republican senators say it should be up to Robert Hur, the special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, to decide whether Biden should be charged with a crime, not House Republicans, who filed more than a dozen articles of impeachment against Biden in the last Congress.
“It could be a criminal offense,” Cornyn said. “That’s what the special counsel is for. Mishandling classified materials is very serious.”
Garland appointed special counsel Jack Smith in November to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump’s handling of classified documents and whether he unlawfully interfered with the 2021 transfer of presidential power.
Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blasted some Democrats for “hypocrisy” by trying to minimize Biden’s culpability after hammering Trump for months after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago in August to retrieve classified documents.
“The thing that’s made this such a story is the hypocrisy, [Democrats] attacking Trump,” he said. “Nobody should take classified materials outside of a secure facility, period.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said fellow Republicans should “be careful” about “knee-jerking to impeachment.”
“I think the country will fatigue of that,” he said, pointing out that recent impeachment proceedings against former Presidents Clinton and Trump “have not ended up with any real result.”
“If you start doing it on everything, I think it would be bad politically and for the mechanics of government working,” he said.
Democrats picked up five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections as the Republican majority was in the midst of gearing up to impeach Clinton, marking a rare instance when the president’s party picked up House seats in the middle of a second term.
Republicans picked up 14 House seats in the 2020 election after Democrats impeached Trump at the end of 2019.