March 23, 2023

You’ll be hearing about Rep. James Comer (R-KY), the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, a lot in the coming months.

But unlike other wacky and sinister far-right firebrands on the panel, such as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Comer was not consistently a bomb-thrower in the years before his ascent to the chair.

Interviews with people who know Comer and an examination of public records presented a more complicated view of the man who has spent the last six weeks railing against Hunter Biden’s art purchases and flirting with vaccine skepticism. His reputation in Kentucky was that of a “bipartisan backslapper,” said Adam Edelen, a former Democratic state auditor who spent years working with Comer.

Now, he’s helming one of the party’s highest profile platforms for spreading conspiracy theories, a job that he’s already begun to use to to promote ideas that, for the past few years, have mostly been consigned to Fox News opinion programming and Newsmax.

“How does he manage this?” Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, wondered aloud to TPM. “How does his prevailing persona mesh with the almost by-definition confrontational nature of the chairmanship?”

So far, Comer appears to be managing it without concessions to bipartisanship, playing to the loudest faction of the current Republican base: the fever swamps.

He told the Washington Post last month that the scope of his committee’s work would include the “effectiveness of the vaccines and the concerns that people are starting to raise with respect to side effects.”

It may not need saying, but here it is: There’s no real evidence which has emerged to suggest that the vaccines are ineffective, or that their side effects are dangerous enough or occurring on a large enough scale to present an estimable risk to the general public. But the effect of the Oversight Committee chair’s pronouncement is straightforward: A congressional body often dedicated to rooting out government corruption and advancing consumer protection has launched an investigation that assumes that there is an underlying problem with the COVID-19 shots that is worth looking into.

A similar effort has played out with respect to the committee’s work on Hunter Biden.

Republicans have gone after the remaining Biden son for years, failing all the while to dredge up evidence that links his own presumed moral turpitude to his father, and to identify an issue that extends beyond his purportedly sordid personal affairs.

It makes for lurid watching. And, recently, Comer has sought to give this voyeuristic endeavor a congressional imprimatur.

“We have reason to believe that Hunter Biden has had some contacts that would be of concern to our national security,” Comer told Fox News last month in a bid to link Hunter to reports that classified-marked records were found at President Biden’s home.

Republican candidate for Congress from Kentucky James Comer arrives at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, KY, on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

To Edelen, Comer’s recent dive into the fever swamps came as somewhat of a surprise.

Edelen worked as Kentucky’s state auditor in the 2010s. When Comer was elected state agriculture commissioner, the two teamed up to go after Comer’s predecessor in a corruption investigation: Richie Farmer, a Republican former basketball player who would eventually plead guilty to two counts of misappropriation of government funds.

“That didn’t happen without Jamie Comer being bipartisan, and frankly, pretty couragous in partnering with me to do that,” Edelen recalled.

From there, Comer ran in the GOP primary for governor in 2015. He lost by 83 votes, after an ex-girlfriend accused him of abuse during a college relationship, and of driving her to an abortion clinic. Comer extensively denied the allegations, calling them “lies.”

The victor in that primary, Matt Bevin, went on to win the governorship, from which perch he called for bloodshed were Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 election.

Comer has spoken regretfully of his loss, lamenting recently to local press that “if 42 people had voted differently, I’d have won the primary. That’s 42, out of a quarter of a million that voted that day.”

Since then, Comer has become more of a bomb-thrower, while at times trying to walk a line that it’s not clear really exists.

There’s an example in how the Kentucky politician handled Trump’s effort to reverse his loss in the 2020 election.

He was ranking member on the Oversight Committee, and, as such, Comer was well positioned to do Trump’s bidding: fire off inquiries, at least symbolic ones from the minority, buttressing the myth that mass voter fraud had secured Biden his win.

Along with Rep. Jordan, he did use his committee perch to bolster Trump’s misinformation. But on Jan. 6, he ultimately voted to certify the election.

“I think he’s quite conscious of being thrown into, being categorized as, a Jim Jordan type,” Cross told TPM. “He’s just not that type of guy.”

Congressman James Comer leaves the McLean County Courthouse on May 12, 2017 after a town hall meeting in Calhoun, Kentucky. (Michael Noble, Jr. for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As Oversight chairman, Comer has already made abundantly clear what direction he’ll go in. A letter to Anthony Fauci sent this month asked for his testimony on “gain of function research,” while another to George Berges, the New York City art gallery featuring Hunter Biden’s work, demanded to know whether the SoHo art dealer was operating as a front for Biden family influence peddling. Another letter to a former Twitter executive demanded information about the platform allegedly “suppressing” information about the Biden family.

“Given the hot glare of his chairmanship and the demands of his party, its an open question as to where he will draw the line next,” Edelen remarked.

Comer addressed the criticisms obliquely during a news appearance last month.

“Anything that ends up on Oversight Committee stationery is going to be factual,” Comer told PBS Newshour.

It’s a limited and hedged promise — and one that it seems he’s already failed to keep.

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