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The White House wrote a private memo to US media executives telling them to “ramp up” scrutiny of Republicans’ impeachment efforts.
Joe Biden was accused of “audacious hand-holding” after his spokesman drafted a letter that angered reporters and Republicans concerned by overreach.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, launched an impeachment inquiry into Mr Biden on Tuesday, citing allegations of a “culture of corruption” around the US president.
The White House has drawn up plans to fiercely defend Mr Biden against the investigation, which they argue is “based on lies” and “disproven” claims.
Ian Sams, the White House spokesman on the GOP investigations, drafted a letter to America’s leading news executives pressing them on their coverage of the proceedings.
“It’s time for the media to ramp up its scrutiny of House Republicans for opening an impeachment inquiry based on lies,” Mr Sams wrote.
‘Strategy will backfire’
The letter said many Republicans had admitted there was “no evidence” of wrongdoing by Mr Biden and the impeachment inquiry should “set off alarm bells for news organisations”.
It was sent to major US newspapers and TV networks including CNN, Fox News, AP and the New York Times on Wednesday and touched off a firestorm of criticism.
John Roberts, a veteran White House reporter and Fox News anchor, called it “a pretty audacious attempt at hand-holding”.
Matthew Keys, a former Reuters journalist, warned the White House against “encouraging, influencing or interfering in the editorial strategies of America’s newsrooms”.
Mr Keys added the strategy would backfire, suggesting Republican legislators could now respond to press scrutiny by “questioning whether it’s actual journalism or something encouraged by the Biden administration”.
The move was also criticised by Republican members of Congress, including Greg Murphy, the North Carolina representative, who accused the White House of demonstrating contempt “for transparency and an honest press”.
Mr McCarthy launched the impeachment inquiry after bowing to pressure from Right-wing colleagues who have threatened to oust him as the Republican leader in the House of Representatives.
Republicans loyal to Donald Trump have been calling for Mr Biden’s impeachment since he took office and have grown weary of Mr McCarthy’s cautious approach.
It emerged on Wednesday that Mr Trump has privately been encouraging senior GOP congressmen to impeach his successor and 2024 rival in regular phone calls in recent weeks.
They include the hard-Right representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who briefed Mr Trump on their “strategy” on Sunday night.
The Georgia congresswoman said she had told the former president she wanted the impeachment inquiry to be “long and excruciatingly painful for Joe Biden”.
Mr McCarthy said the probe was the “logical next step” following months-long investigations into Mr Biden, his son Hunter, and other relatives.
Two key statements
While an inquiry is a preliminary step, political pundits believe it will ultimately lead to Republicans voting to impeach the president.
Mr McCarthy has put two statements by Mr Biden during the 2020 election at the heart of the effort.
They are his assertion that Hunter Biden did not make money in China and that he did not have meetings with his son’s business associates while serving as US vice-president.
Both claims have been contradicted by recent sworn testimony given by Hunter Biden and his former business partner, Devon Archer.
The White House continues to insist that Mr Biden “didn’t discuss Hunter’s business dealings with him and wasn’t in business with his son”.
While it appears Mr Biden has misrepresented his son’s business activities, Republicans have not produced any evidence that the president was materially involved or profited from them.
Mr Archer has testified that Hunter Biden would demonstrate his “proximity to power” to his business partners with calls to his father.
But he added he had never witnessed the pair “discussing the substance of Hunter Biden’s business” and was “not aware of any [wrongdoing]” by the president.
Republicans are expected to release additional tax information relating to Hunter Biden in the coming weeks.
In his letter to media outlets, Mr Sams said Republicans had “tried to muddy the waters by attracting media coverage of their allegations”.
He warned reporters to avoid a false equivalence between their claims and the White House’s counterclaims.
“Covering impeachment as a process story – Republicans say X, but the White House says Y – is a disservice to the American public who relies on the independent press to hold those in power accountable,” he said.
Abbe Lowell, a lawyer representing Hunter Biden, said Mr McCarthy’s inquiry was based on “inaccurate conspiracies about Hunter Biden and his legitimate business activities”.
In a further blow to Mr Biden, a high-profile Washington Post columnist on Wednesday urged the 80-year-old against seeking re-election in 2024.
David Ignatius, a prominent journalist whom Mr Biden has known for decades and is widely read in the White House, said withdrawing from the race “would be a wise choice for the country”.