In early 2017, freshman James Comer found himself aboard Air Force One with the nation’s two most powerful Republicans, President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Returning to Washington from a Kentucky rally, conversation turned to the president’s first legislative push, with McConnell encouraging Trump to pursue an infrastructure deal.
But Trump and House GOP leaders chose instead to wage a futile battle to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It was a mistake that Comer believes has cost his party years — and one that serves as a lesson for him as he now takes charge of the powerful House Oversight and Accountability Committee.
“Let’s commit to things that are achievable, not just red meat points that will get you on Fox News for 4 1/2 minutes,” Comer told The Associated Press in a March interview as Republicans campaigned to regain control of the House.
These lofty words will soon be put to the test.
Comer, the grandson of rural Kentucky political leaders, will lead a committee whose members are among the most staunch conservatives in Congress. Some have introduced articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden and promised far-reaching investigations into his administration and family, especially his son Hunter.
Comer has also made vigorous requests, and under Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s grueling road to being elected Speaker of the House, he argued that the lengthy process – 15 ballots over several days – only delayed the start of much-needed work.
And yes, Comer has landed regularly on Fox News.
The 50-year-old, who often goes by Jamie and speaks in a thick Appalachian drawl, has been little known nationally. Comer is described by members of both parties as even-handed and approachable, and his rise to power is unfolding in an overtly partisan environment as Republicans hold a narrow majority in the House and face Democratic control in the Senate.
Comer, first elected to public office at the age of 27, has vowed to go after waste, fraud and abuse in government. But he is confronted by committee members who are completely devoted to Trump and to returning him to the White House. Some are clinging to the baseless claim that Trump beat Biden in 2020 and seem more concerned with getting attention than achieving a legislative outcome.
“I think we have an important job, and I think it’s important to be factual,” Comer said in an interview with the AP last week. “I think it’s important for the future of congressional investigations because congressional investigations at this point don’t have a lot of credibility because they’ve been so partisan.”
The former state lawmaker arrived in Congress after losing the Republican nomination for governor in 2015, just 83 votes behind Matt Bevin, a tea party-backed rival.
Days before that primary, a former college sweetheart outlined multiple allegations of abuse against Comer in an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Comer, who admitted dating the woman, denied abusing her, saying at the time that the crime of domestic violence “makes me sick.”
He came to Washington with a mission to work his way up from the backbenches of the committee he now chairs. In the last Congress, he became the top Republican on the committee, which was chaired by then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney, DN.Y.
Maloney, who lost a Democratic primary for Rep. Jerry Nadler last year, said she had a good working relationship with Comer. “He was a partisan fighter, but it was also reasonable,” she said in an interview. “And we worked together on several bills that helped the country.”
Asked if she thought Comer would be able to lead the committee in a divided Washington, Maloney said, “I think you’ll find out soon enough. He was a serious legislator with me.”
Appointed to Comer’s committee this past week were ultraconservative zealots and loyal Trump-allied Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Paul Gosar of Arizona. Their additions are expected to further complicate the chairman’s ability not to lead the committee astray.
“I think that Kevin McCarthy has put him in a bit of a bind by giving in to all the demands of the extreme right in order to gather his slim majority and then putting so many of the extremist members on the Oversight Committee,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee.
“And I know it will take every bit of political skill he has to both exercise serious oversight and then also accommodate the demands of a group of members who can often be fanatical and unreasonable.”
Greene introduced articles of impeachment against Biden on his first day in office and vowed to continue his efforts once he sat on the committee.
“Joe Biden, be prepared. We are going to expose every corrupt deal, every foreign entanglement, every abuse of power and every check cut for The Big Guy,” Greene said in a statement last week.
The White House responded this week by saying Comer was “setting the stage for political stunts divorced from reality.”
Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, said in a statement that the chairman “once said his goal was to make sure the committee’s work is ‘credible,’ but Republicans are handing the keys to oversight to the most extreme MAGA members in the Republican caucuses promoting violent rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories.”
It’s short for Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which has since come to describe his policies and supporters.
Comer said he has made it clear to members that their mandate is the truth: “I said, ‘We’ll look into anything, but it’s not going to be on Oversight stationery unless we can back it up with facts. ”
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who will return to the committee this session, said he has confidence in Comer’s ability to steer the ship. “He’s interested in what the facts and the details are,” Donalds said. “He’s not looking for news cameras and things like that. He just wants to get the job done.”
A new committee member, Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich., said Comer will bring a level of “awareness” to “a very fiery committee.”
One of the main GOP targets will be the Biden family, specifically the business ties of Hunter Biden and James Biden, the president’s brother.
Republicans now have subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct a far more aggressive investigation. GOP staffers have spent the past year analyzing messages and financial transactions found on a laptop that belonged to Hunter Biden. Comer said the evidence they have gathered is “overwhelming,” but did not provide details.
Hunter Biden’s taxes and foreign business dealings are already under federal investigation by a federal grand jury in Delaware. The younger Biden has never held a position in the presidential campaign or in the White House. But his membership on the board of a Ukrainian energy company and his efforts to strike deals in China have long raised questions about whether he was acting on his father’s public service.
Joe Biden has said he has never spoken to his son about foreign business. There is no indication that the federal investigation implicates the president.
And Comer has promised there will be no hearings regarding the Biden family until the committee has evidence to support any allegations of alleged wrongdoing. He also acknowledged that the stakes are high whenever an investigation involves the leader of a political party.
“I just feel that, for better or for worse, we’re going to be judged differently than Adam Schiff,” Comer said, referring to the California Democratic congressman who led the first impeachment trial against Trump and has become a boogeyman of the right. . “I don’t think he suffered the media’s wrath the way Republicans would if we screw things up that aren’t true.”
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.