Shortly after Republican James Comer was elected as Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner in 2011, he phoned an old colleague from the Statehouse and asked whether he would serve on his transition team: Derrick Graham, a Democrat.
The friendly gesture was the kind of bipartisan comity Comer came to be known for during his decadelong career in the Kentucky House of Representatives and running the state’s critical Agriculture Department. Democrats back home describe the “Jamie Comer” they knew then as a pragmatic “centrist,” someone they could reach to across the aisle and work with on industrial hemp production and aquafarming to an unpopular investigation into a high-profile member of his own party.
But after he seized the U.S. House Oversight Committee gavel this year, Comer quickly shed that bipartisan image — and earned the wrath of the very Democrats who once praised him. During his eight months as chairman, Comer, who is in his fourth term in Congress, has emerged as the face of the GOP’s sprawling — and some have said conspiratorial — probes into Hunter Biden and the chief antagonist to his father, President Joe Biden.
Comer has become a fixture on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, where he serves up red meat for the right, repeatedly invoking the “Biden Crime Family,” casually accusing the president — without evidence — of engaging in an “influence peddling scheme” and violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and mocking Hunter Biden’s past drug addiction and money problems.
“It’s a different Jamie Comer in Washington than what we have here in Kentucky,” said Graham, now the minority leader in the state House, who initially viewed Comer as being in the mold of the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper and the late Rep. Tim Lee Carter, Republicans “who got things done.”
“It really does surprise me, because this individual I see when I watch him on TV is totally different than the individual that I served with in the House,” Graham added. “And it’s unfortunate that we have come to a place where it’s not about policy — it’s about personality. And that’s not a good thing for governing. … It’s a division that is causing people to draw sides. And that’s not good for our country.”
While the Biden probe has divided Democrats and Republicans, they agree on one thing: The ambitious Comer, 51, now has the stature, national fundraising network and popularity in the GOP to excel in a future race for governor or to succeed arguably the state’s most powerful politician, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is 81 and has been battling health issues. On Wednesday, McConnell appeared to freeze for a second time in as many months when a reporter asked him whether he plans to run for re-election.
Comer, in a phone interview from Kentucky, said he’s happy serving in the House but didn’t rule out a bid for higher office, saying: “I can’t predict the future. I don’t know what’ll happen.”
Speaking before McConnell’s latest apparent freeze, Comer said he is a firm believer in term limits and eventually wants to return to his farming operation in Monroe County.
“I certainly don’t want to be one of these people that stay in Washington forever and get old,” he said. “I think that’s not a good business model.”
Comer nearly became Kentucky’s governor in 2015. He lost by just 83 votes in the GOP primary to tea party favorite Matt Bevin, who portrayed himself as the most conservative candidate and went on to win the general election. During the final stretch of the primary campaign, a former girlfriend from college accused Comer of physically and mentally abusing her during their two-year relationship. Comer denied the allegations.
“I could have run for governor this time. And I don’t think a lot of the Republicans that filed would have filed if I had run. I think I could have won,” he said. “But I knew I had the opportunity to be chairman of this committee. I knew it would be, in my opinion, the most high-profile position in the House.”
That national platform has generated a huge fundraising windfall for Comer. Since he took over the committee chairmanship and launched the Biden probe in January, his campaign committee has had a staggering increase in small-dollar donations, having raised $1 million during the first six months of 2023, compared to a little more than $230,000 in the first six months of 2021, according to campaign finance records.
Ahead of the first GOP presidential primary debate last week, Comer huddled behind closed doors with donors in Milwaukee and briefed them on the party’s Biden investigations.
In the interview, Comer aggressively pushed back against the idea that he had abandoned his bipartisan bona fides, even suggesting he could still work with progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“Nothing has changed. I’ve always been bipartisan. I just happened to be leading this investigation that they consider partisan because I’m investigating Biden, a Democrat, for corruption,” Comer said.
Comer passed on running for governor this year, he said, so he could focus on his probe into the Bidens. Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, will take on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear this fall — a reminder that members of both parties have been elected to statewide office recently and perhaps one reason Comer is so eager to tout and defend his bipartisan record.
A bipartisan record
Former Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he has also noticed a change in Comer over the years. They often commuted on the same flight between Kentucky and Washington after Comer won election to Congress in 2016.
“We’ve talked a lot over those six years, and all I can say is I think he has changed because of his position,” Yarmuth said, referring to Comer’s Oversight Committee role. “He’s become a rabid partisan.”
Yarmuth first got to know Comer a decade ago when Comer invited him to speak on a panel with him, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., in support of industrial hemp production.
“That’s where liberals and libertarians are on the same page. So I got to know him a little bit then. He seemed like a relatively nonpartisan type. He was easy to work with,” Yarmuth said.
That has changed. “In my part of Kentucky, people look at him and think he’s an embarrassment,” said Yarmuth, who represented Louisville. “Whether that hurts him politically in the long run or not is another question — a lot of people do some pretty stupid things and do very well.”
In response to criticisms, Comer rattled off a list of his bipartisan wins. One of his first acts as agriculture commissioner, he said, was to audit and work with Democrats to investigate his GOP predecessor, Richie Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball player.
“I led an investigation that put the most beloved Republican incumbent in Kentucky in prison. My predecessor went to prison for corruption,” he said. “So that hurt me politically with Republicans. I don’t discriminate.”
Comer also highlighted his independent streak, pointing out he broke with President Donald Trump and many House GOP colleagues by voting to certify Biden’s election victory in 2020.
“Of all the people that voted to certify the election, I had the highest Trump district in America. Trump won my district by 49 points. And I voted to certify that election. Do you know who had the second-highest Trump district that voted to certify the election? Liz Cheney,” Comer said. “So I think that’s a big mischaracterization when they say that I’m not bipartisan.”
Comer is steering clear of endorsing in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries but says he will support his party’s eventual nominee — even if it’s Trump.
When Democrats controlled Congress, Comer teamed with Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., then the Oversight Committee chair, on legislation to modernize the U.S. Postal Service; Biden signed it into law last year. And he pointed to his past work with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., to protect access to student lunch programs as schools shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, calling himself “a big proponent of nutrition programs, especially for children.”
Perhaps most surprising: Comer said he could work with a pair of progressives on ethics reform legislation that could regulate whether family members of elected officials can do business with foreign governments or entities: Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who both serve on his Oversight panel.
“We have a good relationship with Ro Khanna. I do a lot of TV appearances with Ro Khanna,” Comer said. “I think AOC would be a great person to work with on this.”
A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment. Khanna said he is “open to working” with Comer on an ethics bill — “as long as it applies broadly and is not seen as partisan.”
Comer joked, however, that he wouldn’t join hands with his Democratic counterpart on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who has ridiculed, picked apart and poked holes in Comer’s investigation.
“He has defined his major goal as demonstrating that President Biden is linked to corruption, and they haven’t laid a glove on it,” said Raskin, who downplayed Comer’s comments about certifying the election. “He did the right thing on that occasion — that’s like Donald Trump saying he paid his taxes one year.”
Exaggerations and innuendo
On a national media blitz that has included both conservative and mainstream outlets, Comer frequently makes big pronouncements when he discusses his probe.
“Were it not for the House Oversight Committee and this investigation, the American people would never know the extent of the crimes that the Bidens have committed. And they would have just had the narrative that Joe Biden wasn’t involved, when, in fact, Joe Biden was front and center in its influence-peddling scheme.”
In his media appearances, Comer often dabbles in unfounded claims, exaggerations and innuendo that sometimes border on conspiracy theories. And while he has shed light on Hunter Biden’s questionable business dealings in China and Ukraine, he has yet to uncover any direct evidence that Biden, when he was vice president, was profiting from his son’s business schemes or changing U.S. policy to help his son or other family members — a fact that has prompted moderate Republicans to pump the brakes on the GOP’s impeachment push.
In recent days, Comer has highlighted a new development in the case — that Biden used three pseudonyms when he emailed as vice president. Comer claimed that Biden copied Hunter Biden on an email pertaining to Ukraine policy when his son was serving on the board of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma.
“The recent revelation that Joe Biden was using pseudonyms with respect to Ukrainian policy and he was copying Hunter on those, I think that shows that Joe Biden was communicating with Hunter about policy,” Comer said in the interview.
The facts are far more complicated. The email in question, dated May 26, 2016, was sent from a Biden aide to Joe Biden, who used the pseudonym “Robert L. Peters.” White House spokesman Ian Sams said Tuesday it has been a common practice for presidents, Cabinet secretaries and other government officials to use alternative email addresses to protect against security issues and spam. “Did they think he was just joe dot biden @? LOL Wonder what some Congressmen’s emails are!” Sams posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Hunter Biden is copied on the email, which includes the vice president’s schedule for the next day. It includes a phone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko but also travel plans that evening to Biden’s Delaware lake house, where the family was gathering that weekend to mark the first anniversary of Beau Biden’s death.
Comer has often asserted that Biden was fully aware of what he called Hunter Biden’s “shady foreign transaction schemes.” And he expressed incredulity at the president’s repeated denials.
“My job was never to impeach; my job was to investigate and get the facts. And I think what we found is a series of crimes,” Comer said. “Let’s say the theory of the media … that Joe Biden didn’t know a thing about it — well, shouldn’t he have known something about it? I mean, this guy’s got the nuclear code, and he doesn’t know his family, nine of his immediate family members, everyone sitting at the Christmas, at the Thanksgiving table, is receiving wires from foreign nationals. Should he not know that?”
So far, his handling of the Biden probe has received high marks from Oversight Committee Republicans, like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Gary Palmer of Alabama, who said Comer is “attentive” to leads other committee members take to him.
Greene, who showed explicit photos of Hunter Biden at an Oversight Committee hearing in July and has pushed to impeach the president, also had high praise. “He’s leading the best investigation into the Bidens, far better than anything the FBI has done, far better than anything the DOJ has done,” she said.
Comer, too, is proud of the panel’s work.
“I think the public has learned more from our congressional investigation thus far than any congressional investigation in recent memory,” he said.