WASHINGTON – Impeachment is among the most severe and solemn powers Congress has, right up there with declaring war. Not since 1876 has an executive-branch appointee been impeached, and not in the history of the republic has Congress impeached an executive-branch official below the Cabinet level.
Now, Republicans in Congress would change that. On Wednesday, they wheeled out the sacred tool of impeachment -- weeks before an election -- for the purpose of smearing an honorable public servant, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, in service of a lie.
“The IRS has been abusing taxpayers and illegally targeting conservatives and getting away with it,” Rep. John Fleming, a Republican Senate candidate in Louisiana and leader of the House effort to impeach Koskinen, says in a new radio ad. “The head of the IRS ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them. ... I’m fighting back with an impeachment vote against the head of the IRS.”
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There are just a few wee problems with the Republicans’ logic. The targeting of conservative groups ended in 2013. The Treasury Department’s inspector general, originally a Republican appointee, reported no evidence of political motivation in the targeting. The Justice Department, too, found “no evidence that any IRS official acted based on political, discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives” and “no evidence that any official attempted to obstruct justice.” The official responsible for the targeting resigned before Koskinen came to the IRS at the end of 2013. And the same IG said last year that “no evidence was uncovered that any IRS employees had been directed to destroy or hide information from Congress, the DOJ, or .”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, eager to avoid the spectacle of the House voting to impeach an innocent man based on false charges without a proper hearing, got impeachment advocates to settle for Wednesday’s hearing in which Koskinen testified before the House Judiciary Committee. But that hardly improved matters: To say this impeachment inquiry is a kangaroo court would be an insult to marsupials.
The hearing was called without the usual protocol of a vote of the House authorizing an investigation. The accused was not represented by counsel or given the right to present evidence. He was even denied access to the “evidence” the House Oversight Committee amassed that forms the basis of the charges against him.
Even the kangaroos on the Judiciary court were denied the secret evidence behind the bogus charges. “Does the committee majority have access to the unedited transcripts of the interviews conducted by the Oversight Committee?” Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York asked the committee’s chairman, Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.
“We do not think so,” Goodlatte replied.
If they lacked evidence, Republicans on the panel compensated with hysteria.
“We expect this kind of behavior from dictatorships,” announced GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. “It represents a direct attack on freedom of religion -- excuse me. It represents a direct attack on freedom of speech and, thus, an attack on our Constitution and our democracy.”
Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, took the unusual tack of accusing Koskinen of refusing to testify even as he sat there testifying: “You circled the wagons and clammed up, and you took the Fifth, and you destroyed evidence and betrayed the country.”
Rather than join in the wild accusations, several Democrats on the panel chose instead to ask Koskinen about Donald Trump’s taxes -- a line of questioning that brought an objection from Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, because it was “outside the scope of this hearing.”
The chairman let Issa know that he couldn’t tell the Democrats which questions to ask; even a kangaroo court has some standards.
There’s no dispute that Koskinen misinformed lawmakers in 2014 when he said that all evidence had been preserved relevant to the targeting. In fact, IRS workers a few months earlier had destroyed backup tapes that contained relevant emails. Koskinen says he didn’t know that at the time. The IG spent a year investigating the matter and attributed the erasure to bureaucratic errors, finding “no evidence that the IRS and its employees purposely erased the tapes in order to conceal responsive e-mails from the Congress.”
But Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, one of those leading the charge to impeach Koskinen, doesn’t believe that.
“That’s just a coincidence?” he asked Koskinen on Wednesday about the erasures. “That just happened by chance?”
Jordan is entitled to his beliefs and his conspiracy theories, even if they run contrary to the evidence. But when it comes to the awesome power of impeachment, the burden of proof should be higher than wild speculation.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.