House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s pledge to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is an early signal that the new Republican House majority will scramble to appease its MAGA rump in ways likely to help Democrats in 2024.
“I’m calling on the secretary to resign,” McCarthy said at an appearance in El Paso, Texas, on November 22. “He cannot and must not remain in that position. If Secretary Mayorkas does not resign, House Republicans will investigate every order, every action, and every failure will determine whether we can begin impeachment inquiry.”
“What specific crimes would you be investigating for a potential impeachment trial?” asked a reporter at the scene. It was a perfectly obvious question that McCarthy had absolutely no idea how to answer.
McCarthy ought to have been well prepared for someone to ask what he was playing at, especially considering the fact that he’s advocated for Mayorkas’s removal since last April. In order to impeach a government official, the House of Representatives needs to identify evidence of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and McCarthy, who’s never been accused of quick-wittedness, couldn’t name even a suspected crime. “We first take the investigation, the orders,” McCarthy said, as the rusty hamster wheel inside his cranium inched forward. Investigation of what? “Lying to the American public,” McCarthy said.
Ahem. If lying to the American public is an impeachable offense, then McCarthy committed one in April when he publicly referred to a New York Times story about him as “totally false and wrong.” The story in question reported that in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, McCarthy told congressional colleagues that he would urge President Donald Trump to resign (“I’ve had it with this guy”)—only to fall meekly back in line five days later. There has never been any question that McCarthy flat-out lied in denying the Times story, which was substantiated by a tape recording available to any human with an internet connection.
McCarthy completed his answer to the reporter’s high crimes and misdemeanors query in a vein that reminded me of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton bluffing their way through a human cloning in Sleeper (1973):
Withholding [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] from doing their job. Not following through on what the laws on the books are today. We never do impeachment for political purposes. We’re having an investigation. We know exactly what Secretary Mayorkas has done. We’ve watched it across this nation. Something that has never happened before. We watched him time and again before our committee say this border is secure, and we can’t find one border agent who agrees with him. So we will investigate. If the investigation leads to impeachment inquiry, we will follow through. Thank you and appreciate it.
If McCarthy’s comments last month to Punchbowl News are to be believed, the Republican leader doesn’t really want to impeach Mayorkas. “I think the country doesn’t like impeachment used for political purposes at all,” he said. Asked whether Biden or anyone in his administration merited impeachment, McCarthy said, “I don’t see it before me right now.” McCarthy’s target audience was the independent voters preparing to vote in the midterms. At the time, McCarthy didn’t want them to think Republicans were insane.
But McCarthy reverted to his previous “Impeach Mayorkas!” cry during his visit last week to the southwestern border. He made the trip two days before Thanksgiving, when the public wasn’t likely to be paying close attention. The target audience this time was Republican congressional stragglers tempted to support a MAGA-fueled speakership challenge by Republican Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona. It was Biggs who last August introduced House Res. 582, a formal resolution urging the impeachment of Mayorkas. At the moment, McCarthy is five votes shy of the necessary 218 to maintain his hold on the GOP caucus.
That an aspiring House speaker should endorse a crackpot plan to impeach a Cabinet member demonstrates how thoroughly captive the GOP remains to its nutbar flank. The last time House members talked up impeaching a Cabinet member was nine years ago, when the now-retired Texas Republican Pete Olson and 10 other Republicans introduced articles of impeachment against then–Attorney General Eric Holder. Then–House Speaker John Boehner resisted the effort on the grounds that it was a political loser. Indeed, the “Impeach Holder!” campaign raised $2.1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over a single weekend. Thanks, Pete!
In the intervening years, GOP derangement hasn’t become less reliable as a Democratic fundraising theme; it’s become more so. But it’s no longer possible for a GOP party leader to resist partisan impeachment calls. Efforts to impeach Cabinet members are especially quixotic because the House has never impeached a sitting Cabinet official; when evidence of serious misbehavior surfaces, such people nearly always just resign.
The closest we ever came to a Cabinet impeachment was in 1876. Evidence surfaced that Secretary of War William Belknap had accepted bribes. As the House prepared to impeach Belknap, Belknap confessed his crime to President Ulysses S. Grant and resigned. The House, all dolled up with no place to go, impeached Belknap anyway, arguing this was legitimate because the vote was being held on the same calendar day as Belknap’s resignation. The Senate concluded it was a waste of the legislature’s time to convict an official no longer in office and acquitted Belknap, who on that same day was indicted by a grand jury. The district attorney then dismissed the case at Grant’s request on the dubious grounds that Belknap had suffered enough. (Yes, Virginia, the Gilded Age was more corrupt than our own.) Since then, the House has impeached 10 federal judges and two presidents but no Cabinet officials, past or present.
The argument for impeaching Mayorkas is even nuttier than the argument was for impeaching Holder. Holder had refused to comply with a congressional subpoena regarding the now-forgotten “Fast and Furious” program, a sting operation gone awry. Mayorkas has done … er, what, exactly? Biggs’s resolution is no more helpful in identifying some tangible wrongdoing than McCarthy’s comments last week to the press. The text doesn’t pretend to be based on anything other than policy differences.
The first article of impeachment charges Mayorkas with “failing to maintain operational control of the border and releasing hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens into the interior of the United States.” This practice, wherein asylum-seekers are captured at the border and then freed with instructions to appear in court at a later date, is known to immigration hard-liners as “catch and release.” I try to avoid that language because it’s borrowed from fishing regulations and therefore dehumanizing.
Whatever you want to call it, President Donald Trump stopped the government from doing it for a couple of years, then returned to the practice in 2019 when the numbers overwhelmed his Department of Homeland Security, much as they have overwhelmed the current administration. Then, as now, the volume of migration had little to do with government policy in the U.S. and everything to do with government policy, or the lack of it, in Central America. Article 1 also faults Mayorkas for ending construction of Trump’s border wall, nearly all of which merely replaced existing wall, and for saying at a press conference, “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’”
Article 2 accuses Mayorkas of not using Trump’s “Title 42” program to bar a sufficient number of immigrants from entry on the basis of possible exposure to Covid-19. This too is a policy disagreement, and in any case a federal judge earlier this month ordered an end to Title 42, effective December 21.
“Impeach Mayorkas!” is a gift to Democrats in two ways. As noted, deranged Republican impeachment drives have helped Democrats raise campaign funds in the past. But also, “Impeach Mayorkas!” gets Democrats (including Mayorkas) off the hook on an issue—immigration—where they might otherwise be vulnerable.
Migrant apprehensions at the southern border are a rough index for how many people cross the border illegally: The more arrests, the more undocumented migrants likely make it across. During the past fiscal year, which ended last month, apprehensions rose 37 percent over the previous year, from 1.7 million arrests to 2.3 million. That represents, at the very least, a failure on the part of Vice President Kamala Harris to persuade El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to improve conditions sufficiently to reduce out-migration. A 20-page policy document to address root causes, reported by the Los Angeles Times last year, contained no timelines or measurements for success. Meanwhile, as James North argued here last week, the U.S. has quite cruelly been turning away refugees from Venezuela, a country on whose undemocratic regime we’ve imposed economic sanctions. If we aren’t willing to admit Venezuelan refugees, why maintain Venezuelan sanctions that drive them to our doorstep?
The immigration issue didn’t favor Republicans in the midterms to anything like the extent predicted, but exit polls revealed immigration to be the issue most important to Republican voters. Seventy-three percent of Republican voters put it first, along with a nontrivial 25 percent of Democratic voters. For comparison’s sake, 76 percent of Democratic voters put abortion first, and we know that made a difference in the midterms.
Immigration remains very much on the public’s mind. Absurd calls for a House show trial to impeach Mayorkas provide a welcome distraction. Voters who might fault Biden and Mayorkas on their handling of immigration will instead be treated to the spectacle of Republicans trying to come up with a plausible-sounding justification to remove Mayorkas from power. Remember the Benghazi hearings, and how skillfully Hillary Clinton let the air out of them? Remember Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi? Guy with Slytherin hair? Today he’s out of Congress and practicing law in South Carolina. He’s got some sort of podcast, and, yes, he has his own Fox News show, but it airs at 7 p.m. on Sundays, when everybody’s watching 60 Minutes. Kevin McCarthy: This may be your future.