Jan 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Comer's two-step messaging war

Photo illustration of two James Comers, one talking and the other one reacting skeptically.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

House Oversight Chair James Comer plans to project a factual, methodical face for official Washington — while thrilling the right-wing base with sideshows of outrage and conspiracy theories.

Why it matters: Comer, a top powerhouse of the new GOP majority, has been road-testing this strategy for months — with solemn appearances on Sunday shows, but more aggressive outings in conservative media.

  • Comer's two-pronged strategy for communication reflects the tightrope top Republicans are walking as they pursue promised investigations into the Biden administration and federal agencies with a tenuous House majority.
  • Recent polls indicate that independent voters are wary of Republicans' plans for aggressive probes, an incentive for Comer to present himself in certain settings as a sober investigator.

Driving the news: At an event at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday, Comer reminded the audience of his vote to certify President Biden's election — despite having called in December 2020 for an investigation of "outright fraud."

  • Comer conceded that the Trump administration had a "problem" with influence peddling, and at one point said of his panel's investigation into Hunter Biden's finances: "Maybe there's nothing there."
  • On the issue of Biden and former President Trump's handling of classified documents, Comer told the audience he wants to work with Democrats to reform "the way that documents are boxed up" when presidents leave office — and stressed that everything he would send out on official letterhead would be rooted in fact.
  • "I believe I've demonstrated that I'll do what I think is right, what I think is best. ... That doesn't mean I'm going to be right 100% of the time," Comer said.

Yes, but: In appearances on Fox News, Newsmax and other conservative media outlets, Comer has been more than willing to endorse baseless claims about President Biden and his family.

  • This month, Comer implied on Fox, without evidence, that Hunter Biden was gifted a diamond by a Chinese businessman in exchange for classified documents.
  • On Newsmax, Comer accepted the premise of a baseless question about a former Asian American staff assistant to then-Vice President Biden being a foreign agent working for the Chinese Communist Party.
  • "When you start tracing back, you see that there are people that had very suspicious ties to some of our adversaries that were involved in the moving process," Comer told the Newsmax host.
  • Comer has also suggested to Fox's Maria Bartiromo, without evidence, that Biden's energy policy is proof that he’s been "compromised" by China.

What we're watching: The split-screen nature of the House Oversight Committee's messaging is likely to intensify as the panel presents its work through public hearings and pursues enforcement of its oversight requests.

  • The nuts and bolts of the investigations will be conducted by Comer's committee counsel, known across Washington for its meticulous work.
  • But the committee's far-right members and Comer himself will head up a political messaging war fought on the airwaves, where facts aren't always a priority.

What's next: The House Oversight Committee will hold its first public hearing on Wednesday, focused on pandemic spending.

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