DANVILLE, Ky. — Steering his S.U.V. through pounding rain on his way to the state capital on a recent Thursday, Representative James R. Comer, the chairman of the Oversight and Accountability Committee, reflected on the pressure he often faced from constituents to investigate unhinged claims about President Biden and Democrats.
“You know, the customer’s always right,” Mr. Comer said wryly, of his approach to the people who elected him and now brandish conspiracy theories, vulgar photographs featuring the president and his son, Hunter, and other lies they expect him to act upon.
“I say, ‘Let me see it,’ because I want to see where the source is,” Mr. Comer said. “They don’t know that it’s QAnon, but it’s QAnon stuff.”
Yet in his new role leading the Republican Party’s chief investigative committee in the House, Mr. Comer, 50, has himself become a promoter of sinister-sounding allegations against Mr. Biden and his family. This pursuit has propelled him to stardom in a party whose best customers — vengeful, hard-right voters — are bent on bringing down the Democratic president.
This month, Mr. Comer joined a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference titled “The Biden Crime Family,” where he asserted that Mr. Biden and his family’s business activities with China posed “a threat to national security.”
Appearing on Fox News in January, Mr. Comer implied, without evidence, that there was a connection between Mr. Biden improperly holding on to classified documents when he was a private citizen and his son, Hunter, receiving a diamond from a Chinese tycoon. In another segment Mr. Comer lamented that Beau Biden, the president’s other son, who died of cancer in 2015, was never investigated.
His embrace of such statements reflects how Mr. Comer, who voted to certify Mr. Biden’s victory and was a favorite among Democrats in Kentucky’s Legislature, has transformed himself to command the Republican war machine in Congress — becoming a high-profile example of what it takes to rise and thrive in the Fox News-fed MAGA universe.
It also underscores the cutthroat instincts of Mr. Comer, who presents himself as an affable country boy of limited abilities, but who has proved to be a methodical and transactional political operator, willing to go to great lengths to crush his adversaries.
During his campaign for governor in 2015, facing allegations of abuse from an ex-girlfriend who also said he had taken her to get an abortion, Mr. Comer worked to discredit a blogger reporting on the claims and a campaign rival he believed was behind them, leaking private emails between the two. Mr. Comer denied the woman’s charges but lost the race anyway.
In reporting this profile of Mr. Comer, The Times spent six hours interviewing him and spoke to more than 30 people close to him throughout his life — from his childhood in the rural town of Tompkinsville in Monroe County through his state political career and fast rise in Washington from a freshman in 2017 to now leading the Biden family investigation that Republicans hope will damage the president before the 2024 election.
A ‘Less Flamboyant’ Style
Mr. Comer spends much of his time these days plotting out his investigation of whether Mr. Biden profited from foreign interests or was corruptly influenced by foreign governments because of business deals by Hunter and other members of his family while the elder Mr. Biden was serving in government.
Mr. Comer insists the inquiry is not a vehicle for political vengeance against the man who vanquished Mr. Trump in 2020 and may compete against him again next year. Instead, he says, it is a matter of legislative oversight to explore whether new laws are needed to guard against conflicts of interest for a president and his family.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
- On a Collision Course: President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy need each other to govern, but a messaging battle has replaced functional legislating as the two spar over the budget and federal debt limit.
- Biden Family: House Republicans released a memorandum asserting that Biden’s relatives received payments from a deal with a Chinese firm, as the lawmakers hunted for evidence that the president and his family profited improperly from his position.
- Trump Inquiry: House Republicans have quietly halted a congressional investigation into whether Donald Trump profited improperly from the presidency, declining to enforce a settlement agreement that demanded that his former accounting firm produce his financial records to Congress.
- I.R.S. Commissioner: The Senate voted to confirm Daniel Werfel to be the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, filling a critical position at the agency as it starts an $80 billion overhaul.
At the same time, Mr. Comer signed on to a letter on Monday demanding answers from Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who is said to be close to indicting Mr. Trump, calling his ongoing investigation “an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority.”
Mr. Comer has quietly abandoned an investigation opened by the panel during the last, Democratic-led Congress, into whether Mr. Trump profited improperly from the presidency. That investigation had begun producing evidence of how foreign governments sought to influence the former president by spending lavishly at his properties.
Mr. Comer also dropped a separate inquiry into the business dealings of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law whose Affinity Partners investment firm received a $2 billion investment from the main Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund six months after the Trump presidency ended.
Mr. Comer indicated he had no interest in the former president’s finances. While he did not rule out looking at Mr. Kushner’s business dealings at some point, when a reporter suggested it might be politically unsustainable for him to investigate Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, he took a long pause, then replied: “I don’t disagree with what you said.”
Mr. Comer, who still clings to his reputation for bipartisanship — photographs of him and Mr. Biden are prominently displayed in his office — is the temperamental opposite to his investigative counterpart, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. Mr. Jordan is a confrontational and fast-talking ideologue who chairs the Judiciary Committee, while Mr. Comer speaks in a Southern drawl, deploys a practiced self-deprecation and tends toward the “just-asking-questions” mode.
The hard right is already losing patience with his approach. Just weeks into Mr. Comer’s chairmanship, Fox News’s Jesse Watters demanded prison time for “someone,” as he questioned whether House Republicans were going to make headway with their investigations.
Mr. Comer’s committee is populated by the most hard-line House Republicans, including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who wields extraordinary power because of her mass following and ironclad bond with the speaker.
Mr. Comer conceded he was limited in how much he could control such members given their outsize influence in the party.
“It’s hard for a coach to tell LeBron James what he’s doing wrong,” he said.
Fellow Republicans argue Mr. Comer is as well suited as anyone to manage rapacious expectations from the party’s base, though some question whether that is possible in today’s political environment.
“He’s likely to do it in a more kind of levelheaded, less flamboyant way than some members of the House might do that job,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, said in an interview.
“He’ll do it as well as anyone could,” Mr. McConnell added. “What we don’t know is whether anyone could.”
Cutthroat Kentucky Politics
It would be hard to find another member of Congress who received a political education like that of Mr. Comer, for whom politics was a family affair in one of the most politically vicious counties in America.
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Over decades, he has built a statewide political network that is rivaled only by Mr. McConnell. Unlike the minority leader, however, he has cultivated overwhelming popularity in Kentucky’s deep-red rural areas where Mr. Trump remains an idol.
Dozens of Kentucky politicians and operatives — including his enemies — described Mr. Comer as one of the most talented retail politicians of his generation and predicted he would one day return to become governor, replace Mr. McConnell whenever he leaves the Senate or even become speaker of the U.S. House.
As a boy, Jamie Comer — people in Kentucky still call him “Jamie,” though he’s “James” in Washington — attached himself to his paternal grandfather, Harlin Comer, who dominated politics in Monroe County until his death in 1993. That was when a 20-year-old Jamie finished out his late grandfather’s sixth two-year term as Republican chairman of Monroe County.
Politics permeated everything in rural Monroe County. The school system was, and remains, the biggest employer. Historically, school board races were win-at-all-cost affairs; patronage meant families’ livelihoods were at stake.
County Judge-Executive Mitchell Page, a friend and mentor of Mr. Comer’s, recalled local politicians visiting cemeteries to convert names on tombstones into voters. Three times already in Mr. Comer’s life, federal authorities have arrested people in Monroe County for vote buying. In Mr. Page’s most recent race, he got in a fistfight with an opponent, an altercation he said probably helped him win.
During the 2015 Republican primary for governor — Mr. Comer’s dream job from a young age — a local blogger began publishing allegations that Mr. Comer had abused a college girlfriend, prompting Mr. Comer to resort to hardball tactics. His campaign turned over documents to a local prosecutor to help in an investigation of the blogger. (The prosecutor dropped the investigation after the election.)
The month before the primary, a story appeared in The Lexington Herald-Leader in which leaked emails suggested coordination between the blogger and the husband of the running mate of one of Mr. Comer’s opponents in the race, the Louisville developer Hal Heiner.
The rumor whispered around Kentucky political circles at the time was that Mr. Comer had swiped the emails from the computer server for the husband’s former law firm and leaked them to the newspaper. In an interview with The Times, Mr. Comer confirmed, for the first time, that he had been behind the leak and strongly hinted he had gotten them from the server.
“I’ve had two servers in my lifetime,” Mr. Comer said when asked about the emails. “Hunter Biden’s is one, and you can — I’m not going to say who the other one was, but you can use your imagination.”
“It ended up in my lap,” Mr. Comer added of the information. “I’ll put it like that.”
In the letter, which The Times obtained and authenticated, Ms. Thomas accused Mr. Comer of having hit her and said he had taken her to a clinic for an abortion, an account that was supported by her roommate at the time. The article reported Ms. Thomas’s claim that she had a document in a lock box in a Kentucky bank proving Mr. Comer had accompanied her for the abortion, but the document has never been made public.
Mr. Comer held a news conference with his wife, T.J., in which he vehemently denied the allegations — and he repeats the denials today — but the damage was done. Mr. Comer lost to another Republican rival, Matt Bevin, by 83 votes, a defeat that people close to him said had left him angry and vindictive.
Ms. Thomas declined requests by The Times to comment about her account, and the roommate who corroborated it in 2015 could not be reached.
Navigating Trump’s G.O.P.
The following year, Mr. Comer won his congressional seat in an election that reflected how closely tied his political fate was to Mr. Trump’s. Mr. Comer carried the district by 45 percentage points, Mr. Trump by 49.
Mr. Comer has praised Mr. Trump frequently and expressed loyalty to him in public appearances, declaring himself “a Trump man,” in a Kentucky radio interview less than two weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. But privately, it’s a little different.
“He was mortified by Trump,” said John Yarmuth, the former Democratic representative from Kentucky who regularly traveled to and from Washington with Mr. Comer. “He used to say he was so frustrated because every weekend he would go home and there would be people who would beat up on him about not defending Trump enough.”
When asked about it, Mr. Comer gave a carefully worded response that fell short of an outright denial: “I talked to Yarmuth a lot, but I don’t remember ever telling him that I thought Trump was a threat to democracy or anything like that.”
Still, during hours of interviews, no issue appeared more uncomfortable for him than Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Mr. Comer says certifying Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory on Jan. 6 was the toughest vote he has ever taken, and one he wrestled with until the last moment.
Then a mob of Mr. Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol, in a terrifying scene he compared to the television series “The Walking Dead.” When Mr. Comer returned to his district, he was blindsided by the ire of his constituents, whose main question was, “Why couldn’t y’all overturn that election?”
“I mean, people were mad,” Mr. Comer says now. “It was like they were rooting for the rioters.”
Calls to ‘Keep It Up’ Back Home
As chairman of the oversight panel, Mr. Comer has said he plans to run serious investigations, following evidence wherever it leads. He insists he is looking beyond Mr. Biden and toward policy issues with bipartisan resonance, such as investigating pharmacy benefit managers and soaring prescription drug prices.
Yet it is clear his main goal is to uncover wrongdoing by Mr. Biden and his family. He has subpoenaed the bank records of Hunter Biden’s associates and recently obtained access to financial records about Biden family business transactions.
Democrats and their well-funded outside groups have accused Mr. Comer of hypocrisy and branded him a MAGA extremist. But in his own party, and back home, Mr. Comer knows that is regarded as a virtue.
“If you come to Kentucky and call me ‘ultra MAGA,’ that doesn’t hurt me in my district,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Instead, at stops throughout his district — in restaurants, farms and small businesses — people treat Mr. Comer as a hero. During a visit last month, constituents told him they had seen him on Fox and urged him to “keep it up.”
Mr. Comer recalled a local deputy sheriff who had recently pulled him over for speeding but let him go when he realized who he had nabbed — only after leaning in to ask one question.
“We going to get Biden or not?”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.