US Presidents Facing Scrutiny on Documents

As former Vice President Mike Pence joined the club of top officials mishandling classified documents, U.S. presidents and vice presidents going all the way back to Jimmy Carter, the oldest living former commander in chief, must now respond to public scrutiny on whether they followed procedure in returning classified material upon leaving office.

Representatives of the 39th U.S. president, who served from 1977 to 1981, said he did.

“Though President Carter was not bound by the Presidential Records Act, which took effect after his presidency, he nevertheless voluntarily donated his documents and records to the National Archives after he left office and directed his team to work closely with the National Archives on their transfer,” a spokesperson said in an email response to VOA.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 governs the official records of presidents and vice presidents after January 1981 and transfers the legal ownership of those records from private to public under the management of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Carter Center did not deny reporting by The Associated Press that classified materials were found at the president’s home in Plains, Georgia, on at least one occasion and were returned to NARA.

“It could happen,” Matthew De Galan, Carter Center vice president of communications, told VOA. “If it happened, it’s a normal thing — you find a classified document, you turn it in.”

But no one currently working at the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum remembers the president finding classified materials at his home, De Galan added.

Representatives of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama responded similarly to VOA’s query, saying the presidents returned materials to NARA at the end of their terms and no additional searches are being conducted. Obama’s office points to NARA statements in September that refute media reports that boxes of presidential records were missing from the Obama administration when NARA moved them at the end of his term.

Widespread problem

Lawyers for Pence said a “small number” of classified documents were found at his home in Indiana last week. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are under separate special counsel investigations looking into their respective mishandling of classified documents.

Much is still unknown about how, when and why these materials were not appropriately handled. However, many former officials and experts say the problem is widespread.

“There are several million people at any given time who hold a security clearance and have access to classified information,” Mark Zaid, an attorney focusing on national security law, told VOA. “Individuals leave federal service and just mistakenly bring documents home that are classified, and they don’t even realize that for years.”

Classified documents may also get misplaced during a presidential transition, where there is a massive move of records, including the physical transfer of hundreds of millions of textual, electronic and audiovisual records and artifacts from the White House to an outgoing president’s future library.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, said in a tweet that it is likely every president and vice president in recent history “accidentally left with classified documents because of packing mess at transition times.”

Still, some lawmakers are livid.

“We have an epidemic of senior leaders taking classified [documents] home. And we have to say categorically, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, it’s all wrong,” Republican Representative Don Bacon said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It shows carelessness, negligence, and I think Americans should be mad,” he added, throwing his support behind a special counsel investigation on Pence similar to those investigating Trump and Biden.

White House officials maintain that Biden and his aides take treatment of classified materials seriously.

“The National Security Council staff, we deal with classified material every single day. You have to do that,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the NSC, said during a briefing to reporters on Wednesday. “We all know what the rules are. We follow the rules. And the procedures exist for a reason.”

Public trust in elected officials is already at a historic low, with only 20% of Americans saying they trust the government in Washington to do what is right, according to a Pew Research poll.

“Most people think that the government does a pretty good job with national security,” Jennifer Mercieca, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Texas A&M University, told VOA. “These classified document scandals could affect how the public sees the government’s ability to guarantee safety.”

Some observers say that while officials must deal with classified materials more carefully, the U.S. government system suffers from rampant overclassification.

“Many millions of documents are classified each year, most of which do not contain any real secrets but are classified for political purposes,” said Allan Lichtman, presidential historian at American University who has written about reforming the U.S. classification system. “Until such reform is realized, the American people have a reason to distrust the classification system.”

As part of his Open Government Initiative, Obama signed an executive order mandating that the government cannot classify a document if “significant doubt” exists about the need to hide it.

Elizabeth Goitein, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, argues that the order doesn’t go far enough. She said officials overuse “Secret” and “Top Secret” stamps, keeping many documents that should be public from becoming available.

Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

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Classified Documents at Pence’s Home, Too, His Lawyer Says

Documents with classified markings were discovered in former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home last week, his lawyer told the National Archives in a letter — the latest in a string of discoveries of confidential information in private residences.

The records “appear to be a small number of documents bearing classified markings that were inadvertently boxed and transported to the personal home of the former vice president at the end of the last administration,” Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, wrote in the letter shared with The Associated Press.

He said that Pence “engaged outside counsel, with experience in handling classified documents, to review records stored in his personal home after it became public that documents with classified markings were found in President Joe Biden’s Wilmington residence.

The Justice Department already is using special counsels to investigate the presence of documents with classification markings taken from the Florida estate of former President Donald Trump and from Biden’s home and former Washington office. The department says roughly 300 documents marked classified, including at the top-secret level, were taken from Mar-a-Lago, and officials are trying to determine whether Trump or anyone else should be charged with illegal possession of those records or with trying to obstruct the months-long criminal investigation.

Pence’s lawyer said in his letter that the former vice president “was unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence” and “understands the high importance of protecting sensitive and classified information and stands ready and willing to cooperate fully with the National Archives and any appropriate inquiry.”

Jacob said that Pence immediately secured the documents that were discovered in a locked safe. And according to a follow-up letter from the lawyer dated January 22, FBI agents visited Pence’s residence to collect the documents.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, and a lawyer for Pence did not immediately respond to an email seeking elaboration.

Pence told The Associated Press in August that he did not take any classified information with him when he left office.

Asked directly if he had retained any such information, he said, “No, not to my knowledge.”

In a January interview with Fox Business, Pence described a “very formal process” used by his office to handle classified information, as well as the steps taken by his lawyers to ensure none was taken with him.

“Before we left the White House, the attorneys on my staff went through all the documents at both the White House and our offices there and at the vice president’s residence to ensure that any documents that needed to be turned over to the National Archives, including classified documents, were turned over. So, we went through a very careful process in that regard,” Pence said.

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Biden Pushing Assault Weapons Ban Renewal Following US Mass Shootings

As Californians deal with two deadly mass shootings just days apart, U.S. President Joe Biden is throwing his support behind gun control measures, including renewing the 1994 assault weapons ban he championed as a senator.

“Even as we await further details on these shootings, we know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action. I once again urge both chambers of Congress to act quickly and deliver this assault weapons ban to my desk, and take action to keep American communities, schools, workplaces, and homes safe,” President Biden said in a statement Tuesday following Monday shootings in two locations at Half Moon Bay, California, that left at least seven people dead.

The shootings happened just two days after a gunman killed at least 11 people at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California, as that city’s Asian American community was celebrating Lunar New Year weekend.

On Monday, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, along with Democratic senators from Connecticut Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, introduced the bill to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban, as well as legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon to 21. That ban expired in 2004.

“The constant stream of mass shootings [has] one common thread: They almost all involve assault weapons. It’s because these weapons were designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible,” Feinstein said. “It’s time we stand up to the gun lobby and remove these weapons of war from our streets, or at the very least keep them out of the hands of young people.”

The weapons ban, opposed by Republicans and gun rights activists, blocks the sale of 19 specific weapons that have the features of guns used by the military and outlawed magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Democratic Congressman David Cicilline will introduce a companion version of the bill in the House of Representatives. Both chambers will need to pass the bill for it to reach Biden’s desk for signature into law — a very slim chance with Republicans controlling the House.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration is considering more executive actions to deal with reducing gun violence.

“But what we believe is that Congress needs to act,” she told reporters Tuesday.

There have been more deadly gun violence incidents so far this year than in any year on record — 39 mass shootings, defined as incidents with at least four victims shot, across the country in the first three weeks of 2023.

Last June, just over a month after the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school killed 19 children and two adults and a mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket killed 10 Black people, Biden signed a bipartisan gun safety bill into law.

The legislation, the first major gun safety regulation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years, includes strengthening background checks for gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and providing incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws that allow groups to petition courts to remove weapons from people deemed a threat to themselves or others, among other provisions.

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White House Chief of Staff Klain Expected to Step Down Soon

Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s White House chief of staff, plans to leave his post in the coming weeks, sources familiar with the matter said on Saturday, a major changing of the guard.

Klain has informed Biden of his plans, the sources said, confirming a New York Times story that said the long-serving aide would likely depart after the president’s State of the Union address on February 7.

Klain, 61, has a long history at the White House, having served as chief of staff to former Vice President Al Gore and to Biden when he was vice president under President Barack Obama.

His departure is coming as Biden prepares to declare whether he will seek a second four-year term in 2024, an announcement anticipated after the State of the Union address.

The Times cited a lengthy list of possible successors to Klain: Labor Secretary Marty Walsh; former Delaware Governor Jack Markell; Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn, counselor to the president Steve Richetti, former pandemic coordinator Jeff Zients and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The news broke as Biden spent the weekend at his Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home.

The chief of staff position is one of the most important at the White House, the senior political appointee responsible for driving the president’s policy agenda and ensuring appropriate staff members are hired.

The job can have a high burnout rate as the long days pile up. Klain’s tenure has been fairly lengthy comparatively speaking. Biden’s predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, burned through four chiefs of staff in four years including his first, Reince Priebus, who lasted 192 days.

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FBI Searches Biden Home, Finds Documents Marked Classified

The FBI searched President Joe Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, on Friday and found six additional documents containing classified markings and also took possession of some of his notes, the president’s lawyer said Saturday. 

The documents taken by the FBI spanned Biden’s time in the Senate and the vice presidency, while the notes dated to his time as vice president, said Bob Bauer, the president’s personal lawyer. He added that the search of the entire premises lasted nearly 13 hours. The level of classification, and whether the documents removed by the FBI remained classified, was not immediately clear as the United States Justice Department reviews the records. 

The extraordinary search came more than a week after Biden’s attorneys found six classified documents in the president’s home library from his time as vice president, and nearly three months after lawyers found a “small number” of classified records at his former offices at the Penn Biden Center in Washington. It came a day after Biden maintained that “there’s no there there” on the document discoveries, which have become a political headache as he prepares to launch a reelection bid and undercut his efforts to portray an image of propriety to the American public after the tumultuous presidency of his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

“We found a handful of documents were filed in the wrong place,” Biden told reporters Thursday in California. “We immediately turned them over to the Archives and the Justice Department.” 

Biden added that he was “fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly.” 

The president and first lady Jill Biden were not at the home when it was searched. They were spending the weekend at their home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. 

It remains to be seen whether additional searches by federal officials of other locations might be conducted. Biden’s personal attorneys previously conducted a search of the Rehoboth Beach residence and said they did not find any official documents or classified records. 

The Biden investigation has also complicated the Justice Department’s probe into Trump’s retention of classified documents and official records after he left office. The Justice Department says Trump took hundreds of records marked classified with him upon leaving the White House in early 2021 and resisted months of requests to return them to the government, and that it had to obtain a search warrant to retrieve them. 

Bauer said the FBI requested that the White House not comment on the search before it was conducted, and that Biden’s personal and White House attorneys were present. The FBI, he added, “had full access to the president’s home, including personally handwritten notes, files, papers, binders, memorabilia, to-do lists, schedules, and reminders going back decades.” 

The Justice Department, he added, “took possession of materials it deemed within the scope of its inquiry, including six items consisting of documents with classification markings and surrounding materials, some of which were from the president’s service in the Senate and some of which were from his tenure as vice president.” 

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed former Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur as a special counsel to investigate any potential wrongdoing surrounding the Biden documents. Hur is set to take over from the Trump-appointed Illinois U.S. Attorney John Lausch in overseeing the probe. 

“Since the beginning, the president has been committed to handling this responsibly because he takes this seriously,” White House lawyer Richard Sauber said Saturday. “The president’s lawyers and White House Counsel’s Office will continue to cooperate with DOJ and the special counsel to help ensure this process is conducted swiftly and efficiently.” 

The Biden document discoveries and the investigation into Trump, which is in the hands of special counsel Jack Smith, are significantly different. Biden has made a point of cooperating with the DOJ probe at every turn — and Friday’s search was voluntary — though questions about his transparency with the public remain. 

For a crime to have been committed, a person would have to “knowingly remove” the documents without authority and intend to keep them at an “unauthorized location.” Biden has said he was “surprised” that classified documents were uncovered at the Penn Biden Center. 

Generally, classified documents are to be declassified after a maximum of 25 years. But some records are of such value they remain classified for far longer, though specific exceptions must be granted. Biden served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009. 

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Biden on Classified Docs Discovery: ‘There’s No There There’

President Joe Biden said Thursday there is “no there there” when he was questioned about the discovery of classified documents and official records at his home and former office.

“We found a handful of documents were filed in the wrong place,” Biden said to reporters who questioned him during a tour of the damage from storms in California. “We immediately turned them over to the Archives and the Justice Department.”

Biden said he was “fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly.”

“I think you’re going to find there’s nothing there,” he said. “There’s no there there.”

The White House has disclosed that Biden attorneys found classified documents and official records on four occasions in recent months — on Nov. 2 at the offices of the Penn Biden Center in Washington, and then in follow up searches on Dec. 20 in the garage of the president’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and on Jan. 11 and 12 in the president’s home library.

The discovery complicates a federal probe into former President Donald Trump, who the Justice Department says took hundreds of records marked classified with him upon leaving the White House in early 2021 and resisted months of requests to return them to the government.

The two cases are different — Biden for example, willingly turned over the documents once found. But the issue is wearing on the president and his aides, who have repeatedly said they acted swiftly and appropriately when the documents were discovered and are working to be as transparent as possible though key questions remain unanswered.

Attorney General Merrick Garland last week appointed Robert Hur, a former Maryland U.S. attorney, to serve as special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s inquiry into the documents. Garland said the extraordinary circumstances warranted a special counsel, and he also made the decision in part to show the Justice Department’s “commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.”

Hur is taking over for federal prosecutor John Lausch, who was initially asked to review the documents and whose team has already been interviewing former Biden aides responsible for packing up boxes during his time as vice president. Those interviews include Kathy Chung, who served as an administrative assistant during that time, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Biden expressed frustration that the documents matter was coming up as he surveyed coastal storm damage, telling reporters that it “bugs me” that he was being asked about the handling of the classified material even as “we have a serious problem here” in California.

“The American people don’t quite understand why you don’t ask me questions about that,” he pressed.

Biden’s team has faced criticism for its fragmented disclosures — the public wasn’t notified of the documents until early January and after that the additional findings dripped out slowly. It has occasionally led to heated exchanges between reporters and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in the White House briefing room. She ran into trouble when she suggested last Friday that all documents had been recovered, only to have an additional discovery disclosed over the weekend.

Biden said Thursday he has “no regrets” over how and when the public learned about the documents.

“I’m following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do,” he said. 

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First Illinois Muslim American Lawmakers Begin Work in Diverse Legislature

Walking through the center of the city in the shadow of the looming domes of two state Capitol buildings — the old one and the new — it’s hard to miss the signs of history marked throughout Springfield, Illinois, the launching pad of the political careers of U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.

“It is surreal to know that Abraham Lincoln was in the same position as me at one point,” said Nabeela Syed while standing in front of a statue of the “Great Emancipator” at the entrance to the current Illinois state Capitol.

While Lincoln made a name for himself at the old Capitol building a few blocks away, history is very much on the mind of Syed as she walks amid the rows of well-polished wooden desks and leather chairs lined up on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives.

“Our tour guide said he actually took a picture of Barack Obama in the same exact place that me and my family were posing,” Syed told Voice of America. “So, to think about the history that exists here in Springfield and the history that we’re contributing, it’s an incredible feeling.”

Making history

Syed and her colleague Abdelnasser Rashid are about to make their own history as the 103rd Legislative session in Illinois gets underway. They are the first Muslim American lawmakers ever elected to the Statehouse.

“I think considering that Illinois has the highest per capita population of Muslims, I do wish it happened sooner, because I know the importance of representation,” Syed said.

In November, Syed defeated an incumbent Republican to win her suburban Chicago district.

“Not only am I Democrat, but I am a hijab-wearing Muslim, Indian American woman,” said Syed. “Our values, the way that we communicate our message, the way we engage our community, went beyond those things that people consider obstacles, and we flipped our district.”

At 23, Syed is also among the youngest women ever elected in Illinois and begins her term among other notable firsts in the Illinois House of Representatives, led by the first Black speaker, with the first female Republican House leader, and the largest Asian American caucus in the General Assembly.

“As the first Palestinian elected to the legislature and as one of two Muslims, I also carry the voices of so many people who have been marginalized and have been yearning for representation. And I take that responsibility very seriously,” said Rashid, who now represents a suburban Chicago district with a large Latino population.

“It is not just about adding the number of colored faces, it is more about perspectives and strategies and position. That’s why I think they got the support from the broader community, not only the Muslim population alone,” said Kikue Hamayotsu, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University.

She credits Rashid and Syed’s successful election campaigns to their focus and messaging on the issues concerning voters and not necessarily their identity.

“The things and policies they talked about are more about imminent important issues such as reproductive health, abortion law. Also gender issues, religious freedom at a time when religious conservatism is rising to influence politics,” Hamayotsu said.

“I think the lesson of my election and Nabeela’s election and so many more — it’s not just Muslims,” said Rashid. “It’s folks like Hoan Huynh, a Vietnamese refugee who was elected. People like Sharon Chung, a Korean-American who was elected. The number of people who are in the Illinois legislature is reflective of the diversity of our state. This is something that we should take pride in, and something that we should embrace so that our government continues to reflect the wishes of its people. I think where we have a strong healthy vibrant democracy, we’ll have better outcomes for all of us.”

‘Our democracy is composed of us’

As he reflects on a long, memorable day that included his swearing-in ceremony, Rashid was hopeful about the signal his and Syed’s elections send to others with similar backgrounds who may be debating their own political careers.

“My election gives confidence to people who may have been hesitant to run but now realize that they can. I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I didn’t think that you could win, and now my eyes are open,” he said.

Syed hopes others who also wear the hijab might see her as an example of what is possible instead of what is not.

“Our democracy is composed of us,” she told VOA. “And we are contributing to making America amazing.”

While Illinois is a reliably “blue” state, Rashid and Syed’s election wins helped Democrats increase the party’s overall influence in state politics. In the 118-member Illinois House of Representatives, 40 seats are now held by Republicans and 78 by Democrats — one of the largest party majorities in state history.

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Illinois’ First Muslim American Lawmakers Begin Work in Diverse Legislature

Illinois’ first Muslim lawmakers are now serving in the Midwestern state’s increasingly diverse House of Representatives. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the state capital, Springfield.

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White House Gives Few Details About Additional Classified Documents Found at Biden’s Home

The White House faced a new barrage of criticism Tuesday about the weekend announcement that lawyers found a third tranche of classified documents at the president’s private home.

Administration officials emphasized they are being cooperative with investigators and transparent with the public and are drawing a contrast between their behavior and that of former President Donald Trump.

However, in a half-hour call with reporters, White House spokesperson Ian Sams declined to offer any details beyond the few the administration already has reported about the unknown number of documents found in private offices and homes used by President Joe Biden.

And while White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fielded multiple questions on the issue, she stressed repeatedly that the White House would not provide too many details while an investigation was underway. Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the potential mishandling of classified documents by Biden.

“While we may be constrained from being able to provide a ton of facts as this investigation is ongoing, we’re being very forthright that we’re being cooperative with the Justice Department,” said Sams, special assistant to the president and senior adviser to the White House counsel’s office. “And that’s such a stark contrast. I mean, you listen to these House Republicans … they’re faking outrage about disclosure and transparency.”

On Saturday, White House lawyer Richard Sauber said in a statement that officials found six pages’ worth of classified documents in Biden’s private library at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. He said those documents were immediately turned over to the Justice Department.

The latest discovery adds to a trove found in December in the garage of Biden’s Wilmington home, and another set found in November in an office in Washington that he used.

Biden said after the first discovery was announced last week that he was “surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office.”

“But I don’t know what’s in the documents,” he added.

Previously, the Justice Department retrieved about 300 documents at various levels of classification from Trump’s Florida home.

Unanswered questions

In Tuesday’s call with reporters, the White House did not give comprehensive responses to questions about why they delayed by days or weeks in announcing the document discoveries, what the parameters were for the searches, whether they are done searching, what’s in the documents themselves and how many there are, and whether Biden would sit for an interview with the special counsel if he is asked.

Trump, on his social media network, sought to contrast his case with Biden’s, saying that he “did NOTHING wrong [and] have the right as President to “declassify.”

Trump added that he kept the documents securely and that “Mar-a-Lago is a highly secured facility, with Security Cameras all over the place, and watched over by staff & our great Secret Service. I have INFO on everyone!”

Biden’s Republican critics have promised swift action.

“President Biden’s three strikes against transparency will be met with swift congressional oversight,” James Comer, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, said in a statement on Saturday. “The White House, the National Archives, and the Justice Department failed to promptly inform Congress and the American people about mishandled classified documents from Joe Biden’s time as vice president.”

When asked if the White House would cooperate with Congress, Sams said, “We’re reviewing those letters. We’ll make a determination about our response in due course. But of course, we’re going to call it out when we see rampant hypocrisy that shows a total lack of credibility when it comes to these requests.”

Walter Shaub, a senior ethics fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, told VOA via email that while the administration was right to promptly inform Justice Department officials after they found the documents, “things might have come out better for the Biden White House if they had done a better job [of]] communicating with the public. At a minimum, they should have been forthcoming with all relevant details when the media first asked about President Biden’s retention of the records.”

“It may be understandable that the administration didn’t alert the public immediately” when they first discovered the documents, he said, but “at some point, they owed the public information. It would have been nice if the administration made an announcement before the media learned that President Biden had discovered classified records in his possession. … That was a breach of trust with the public.”

Jean-Pierre questioned whether the public was preoccupied with what is turning out to be a political headache for the Biden administration, which faces stiff opposition in the new Congress.

“That’s for the American people to decide, right?” she said.

Time and tension

The White House said the Biden administration is aware of its responsibility to inform the public, but it noted there are legal considerations.

“We understand that there’s a tension between the need to be cooperative with an ongoing DoJ investigation and rightful demands for additional public information,” Sams said.

Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department official and former White House staffer, said that often happens in legal matters.

“It is not common for the public to learn about investigations at the investigation stage,” said Strauss, now a managing director at Kroll, a risk and financial advisory solutions firm.

Strauss said the outcome is not inevitable — some of the found documents, which date from Biden’s time as vice president, might no longer be classified.

The one thing that is sure, he said, is that this will take time.

“Right now, I suspect that the president’s lawyers are conducting a very thorough investigation on their own to try to figure out what’s happened, and they probably don’t want to share information until they’ve definitively established what happened and what did not,” he said. “And that’s not a short process in almost any criminal case, or civil case.”

Until this is resolved, questions will continue to hit the White House.

“You guys can ask me this 100 times, 200 times if you wish,” Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday, after fielding several questions on the issue. ”I’m going to keep saying the same thing. I hear your question. It’s been asked. And answered. It’s been noted. And we’re just going to try to move on here.”

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Key Dates in the Discovery of Classified Records Tied to Biden

Key dates related to the discovery of classified documents tied to U.S. President Joe Biden, based on statements from the White House, the president, and Attorney General Merrick Garland:

Jan. 20, 2017: Biden's two terms as vice president to President Barack Obama end.
Mid-2017-2019: Biden periodically uses an office at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank in Washington.
Jan. 20, 2021: Biden is sworn in as president.
Nov. 2, 2022: Biden's personal attorneys come across Obama-Biden administration documents in a locked closet while packing files as they prepare to close out Biden's office in the Penn Biden Center. They notify the National Archives.
Nov. 3, 2022: The National Archives takes possession of the documents.
Nov. 4, 2022: The National Archives informs the Justice Department about the documents.
Nov. 8, 2022: Midterm elections.
November-December 2022: Biden's lawyers search the president's homes in Wilmington, Delaware, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to see if there are other documents from his vice presidency.
Nov. 9, 2022: The FBI begins an assessment of whether classified information has been mishandled.
Nov. 14, 2022: Garland assigns U.S. attorney John Lausch to look into whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate the matter.
Dec. 20, 2022: Biden's personal counsel informs Lausch that a second batch of classified documents has been discovered in the garage of Biden's Wilmington home. The FBI goes to Biden's home in Wilmington and secures the documents.
Jan. 5, 2023: Lausch advises Garland he believes that appointing a special counsel is warranted.
Jan. 9, 2023: CBS News, followed by other news organizations, reveals the discovery of the documents at the Penn Biden Center. The White House acknowledges that "a small number" of Obama-Biden administration records, including some with classified markings, were found at the center. It makes no mention of the documents found in Wilmington.
Jan. 10: 2023: For the first time, Biden addresses the document issue. During a press conference in Mexico City, he says he was "surprised to learn that there were any documents" in the Penn Biden Center and doesn't know what's in them. He does not mention the documents found in Wilmington.
Jan. 11, 2023: Biden's lawyers complete their search of Biden's residences, find one additional classified document in the president's personal library in Wilmington. NBC News and other news organizations reveal a second batch of documents has been found at a location other than the Penn Biden Center.
Jan. 12, 2023: Biden's lawyer informs Lausch that an additional classified document has been found. Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, reveals publicly for the first time that documents were found in Biden's Wilmington garage and one document was found in an adjacent room. Garland announces that he has appointed Robert Hur, a former U.S. attorney in the Trump administration, to serve as special counsel.
Jan. 14, 2023: The White House reveals that Biden's lawyers found more classified documents at his home than previously known. Sauber said in a statement that a total of six pages of classified documents were found during a search of Biden's private library. Sauber said Biden's personal lawyers, who did not have security clearances, stopped their search after finding the first page on Wednesday evening. Sauber found the remaining material Thursday as he was facilitating their retrieval by the Justice Department.

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Proud Boys ‘Took Aim at the Heart of Our Democracy,’ Says Prosecutor

As one of the most high-profile trials to stem from the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack got under way, U.S. prosecutors on Thursday accused leaders of the far-right Proud Boys group of plotting an assault on American democracy.

In an opening argument, federal prosecutor Jason McCullough told jurors that Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and four other leaders engaged in sedition by using force to try to keep Donald Trump in office after he lost the 2020 presidential election. 

“On January 6, they took aim at the heart of our democracy,” McCullough told jurors. 

Defendants’ lawyers said it was Trump, not the Proud Boys, who spurred thousands of supporters to attack the Capitol. 

“He’s the one that told them to march over to the Capitol and fight like hell. Enrique didn’t say that,” said Sabino Jauregui, a lawyer for Tarrio. 

‘These men did not stand back’

The case marks the third time the U.S. Justice Department has charged members of extremist groups with the rarely prosecuted crime of seditious conspiracy after Trump supporters invaded the Capitol in a failed bid to prevent lawmakers from certifying his November 2020 election loss to Biden. 

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and another chapter leader of the far-right militant group were found guilty of seditious conspiracy in November, and another trial is pending against four more members. 

The Civil War-era law, which prohibits people from plotting to overthrow or destroy the U.S. government, carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. 

When it became clear that Trump would not win re-election, “these men did not stand back. They did not stand by. Instead, they mobilized,” McCullough said, paraphrasing a comment Trump made in a debate before the election that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” 

All five Proud Boys defendants have pleaded not guilty and their attorneys will argue that they did not plot to block the peaceful transfer of power. 

Prosecutors have brought criminal charges against more than 950 people following the assault. Four people died during the chaos, and five police officers died of various causes after the attack. 

Trump allies also under scrutiny

Under Special Counsel Jack Smith, the Justice Department is also investigating efforts by Trump’s advisers to overturn his election defeat. 

In the Proud Boys case, the government accuses Tarrio and four other group members, some of whom led state chapters, of purchasing paramilitary gear for the attack and urging members of the self-described “Western chauvinist group” to descend on Washington. 

They say Tarrio directed the attack from Baltimore because he had been ordered to stay out of Washington after being arrested on January 4 for burning a Black Lives Matter banner at a historic African-American church in December 2020. 

Prosecutors say Tarrio met with Rhodes, the Oath Keeper founder, at an underground parking garage after being released from custody. 

Prosecutors accuse the four other defendants – Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Dominic Pezzola – of being among the first members of the crowd to charge past the barricades that had been erected to protect the Capitol. 

A fifth member of the group, North Carolina chapter leader Charles Donohoe, pleaded guilty to other charges in April 2022 and could potentially be called as a witness in the case. 

Biggs and Nordean are accused of tearing down a black metal fence that separated the crowd from police, Donohoe of throwing water bottles at police, and Pezzola with grabbing an officer’s riot shield. 

The indictment said Pezzola used the stolen shield to break a window, allowing members of the mob to enter the Capitol.  

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Veteran Woman Senator Is 3rd in Line for President

On January 3, while Republicans in the House of Representatives were deadlocked over electing a speaker of the house, Democratic Senator Patty Murray was briefly second in line to the U.S. presidency.

That’s because the longtime Democratic senator from Washington state made history when she became the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial role that will see Murray filling in as head of the Senate whenever Vice President Kamala Harris is absent. In Latin, “pro tempore” means “for the time being.”

“The significance of this moment is certainly not lost on me,” Murray, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, said in a statement. “As the first woman to serve as President Pro Tempore, I will be the first woman to sign the bills we send to President Biden’s desk for his signature and to be designated to preside over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President. It’s a responsibility I am deeply honored to take on for my country and for Washington state.”

Murray’s colleagues elected her to the position, which is traditionally based on seniority. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most senior member of the majority party, did not seek the job. Murray’s rise to the leadership position that puts her third in line to the presidency took decades, underscoring how long the road to progress can be.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s a historic moment, and it’s one that’s been very long in coming,” says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “That’s not surprising, because the Senate is an institution that doesn’t turn over very often. So, when it comes to positions of leadership, which are given by seniority … the pace of change is incredibly slow. But it’s still a huge moment.”

If the commander in chief cannot serve, the order of presidential succession is vice president, followed by speaker of the house and then president pro tempore of the Senate. In the last Congress, two women — Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — were the top two people in line for the presidency.

“It’s huge that we have women in these positions of leadership. What I would want to be clear about, though, is that does not mean we’re anywhere close to parity,” Sinzdak says. “We have to celebrate these accomplishments but still acknowledge that there’s work to be done to get closer to equal representation.”

There are now 25 women — one in four members — in the U.S. Senate. In the House of Representatives, fewer than one-third of the members are women. Having women in leadership positions upends traditional notions of who can and should be in those positions, Sinzdak says.

“As we see more and more women serving, it becomes clear women are just as able to serve in those positions as men are, and it normalizes women’s leadership. So, there’s definitely a role modeling effect,” she says. “And I think it also influences other women who may be considering running for office someday. It helps when you see people you can identify with serving in those positions.”

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A Side-by-Side Look at the Trump, Biden Classified Documents

The revelation that potentially classified materials were discovered at think tank offices formerly used by President Joe Biden has prompted questions on how the circumstance compares to the seizure last year of hundreds of documents marked as classified from Mar-a-Lago, the Florida residence of former President Donald Trump.

A side-by-side look at the similarities and differences between the two situations:

How many classified documents are we talking about?

Biden: “A small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered on Nov. 2, 2022, in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank in Washington, as Biden’s personal attorneys were clearing out the offices, according to Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president.

Biden kept an office at the Penn Center after he left the vice presidency in 2017 until shortly before he launched his 2020 presidential campaign. It was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and continued to operate independently of the Biden administration.

Trump: Roughly 300 documents with classification markings — including some at the top-secret level — have been recovered from Trump since he left office in January 2021.

In January 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved 15 boxes of documents, telling Justice Department officials they contained “a lot” of classified material. In August, FBI agents took about 33 boxes and containers of 11,000 documents from Mar-a-Lago, including roughly 100 with classification markings found in a storage room and an office.

How quickly were the classified documents turned over?

Biden: His personal attorneys immediately alerted the White House counsel’s office, who notified NARA, which took custody of the documents the next day, Sauber said.

“Since that discovery, the president’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives,” Sauber said.

Trump: A Trump representative told NARA in December 2021 that presidential records had been found at Mar-a-Lago, nearly a year after Trump left office. Fifteen boxes of records containing some classified materials were transferred from Mar-Lago to NARA in January.

A few months later, investigators from the Justice Department and FBI visited Mar-a-Lago to get more information about classified materials taken to Florida. Federal officials also served a subpoena for some documents believed to be at the estate.

In August 2022, FBI agents conducting a search retrieved 33 boxes from Mar-a-Lago. The search came after lawyers for Trump provided a sworn certification that all government records had been returned.

Could either president face charges related to the discovery of the documents?

Biden: Despite the discovery of classified materials in a Biden office, there is no indication Biden himself was aware of the existence of the records before they were turned over.

The administration has also said that the records were turned over the same day they were discovered, without any intent to conceal. That’s important because the Justice Department historically looks for willfulness, or an intent to mishandle government secrets, in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.

But even if the Justice Department were to find the case prosecutable on the evidence, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has concluded that a president is immune from prosecution during his time in office. Former special counsel Robert Mueller cited that guidance in deciding not to reach a conclusion on whether Trump should face charges as part of his investigation into coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.

Attorney General Merrick Garland asked U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch — one of the few U.S. attorneys to be held over from Trump’s administration — to review the matter after the Archives referred the issue to the department, according to a person familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Trump: The former president possibly faces exposure for obstruction over the protracted battle to retrieve the documents themselves. And, since he’s no longer in office, he wouldn’t be afforded protections from possible prosecution that would apply to a sitting president.

In November, Garland appointed Jack Smith, a veteran war crimes prosecutor with a background in public corruption inquiries, to lead investigations into Trump’s retention of classified documents, as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the January 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.

What did the presidents have to say about the discovery of the documents?

Biden: Answering questions from journalists at the North American Leaders Summit in Mexico on Tuesday, Biden said he was “surprised to learn” that the documents had been found at his think tank. He said he didn’t know what was in the material but takes classified documents “very seriously.”

He said his team acted appropriately by quickly turning the documents over.

“They did what they should have done,” Biden said. “They immediately called the Archives.”

In September, speaking of the situation with Trump, Biden told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that the discovery of top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago raised concerns that sensitive data was compromised and called it “irresponsible.”

Trump: Trump has claimed at times that he declassified the documents that he took with him — though he has provided no evidence of that. He said in a Fox News interview in September that a president can declassify material “even by thinking about it.”

The former president has called the Mar-a-Lago search an “unannounced raid” that was “not necessary or appropriate” and represented “dark times for our Nation.”

Of Biden, Trump weighed in Monday on his social media site, asking, “When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House?”

What are the political implications of the discovery of the documents?

Biden: While unlikely to affect the Justice Department’s decision-making with regard to charging Trump in his own case, Biden’s document disclosure could intensify skepticism among Republicans and others who are already critical that politics is the basis for probes of the former president.

There are also possible ramifications in a new, GOP-controlled Congress where Republicans are promising to launch widespread investigations of Biden’s administration.

Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, said Monday that the American public deserved to know earlier about the revelation of Biden’s classified documents. The Ohio Republican is among House Republicans pushing for the creation of a “select subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal government” within the Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has requested that the U.S. intelligence community conduct a “damage assessment” of the documents found at the Penn Center.

Trump: In its immediate aftermath, Trump and his supporters seized on the Mar-a-Lago search as a partisan attack from Democrats who had long been desirous of removing him from office.

During his 2024 campaign launch in November, at the same club agents had searched months earlier, Trump referenced the probes against him, casting himself as “a victim” of wayward prosecutors and the “festering, rot and corruption of Washington.”

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Biden Says He Doesn’t Know What’s in Classified Documents

President Joe Biden said he was “surprised” to learn his lawyers found government records in his former office at a Washington think tank and said he does not know what information is contained in the classified documents.

“My lawyers have not suggested I asked what documents they were. I’ve turned over the boxes — they’ve turned over the boxes to the [National] Archives, and we’re cooperating fully with the review, which I hope will be finished soon and will be more detail at that time,” Biden said at a press conference in Mexico City with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following their meeting.

On Monday, Biden’s personal lawyers disclosed that in November, a batch of documents from the time Biden was vice president, some of them classified, were found at the offices of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, an institute named after Biden and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania that the White House said Biden used at times between 2017 to 2020.

Republican lawmakers have launched inquiries into the matter.

On Tuesday, incoming House Intelligence chair Mike Turner sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines requesting an “immediate review and damage assessment.”

Turner said the discovery would put Biden in potential violation of laws protecting national security, including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act, two laws that the Justice Department cited as the basis of their search of former President Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, last year. Trump had for months refused the National Archives’ request to hand over classified documents suspected to be in his possession, until a search conducted by FBI agents in August found hundreds of documents, dozens of them top secret.

“When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House? These documents were definitely not declassified,” Trump asked via the Truth Social platform Monday evening.

Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said that following the discovery of the material they immediately notified the National Archives, the agency in charge of handling such presidential documents.

“The White House is cooperating with the National Archives and the Department of Justice regarding the discovery of what appear to be Obama-Biden Administration records, including a small number of documents with classified markings,” Sauber said in a statement.

Sauber said the documents were discovered when the attorneys were packing files “housed in a locked closet” to prepare to vacate office space and that the Archives took possession of the materials the following morning. He said Biden attorneys are working to ensure that “any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives.”

Not uncommon

Given its nature, any mishandling of classified material raises serious concerns, but such incidents are not uncommon and routinely handled through administrative proceedings, said Mark Zaid, an attorney focusing on national security law.

“A thorough factual investigation will be in everyone’s interests and presumably that will help identify whether any individual(s) are culpable,” Zaid told VOA in an email. “At this point, there does not seem to be any evidence that President Biden had any knowledge or involvement with the records in question, but we need to wait to learn more.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed John Lausch, a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, to investigate the matter. But even with the investigation, the White House is now in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why Biden may be committing the same transgression he had criticized Trump for.

Referring to the Mar-a-Lago documents, Biden questioned how “anyone could be that irresponsible” during a September interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” and said he follows strict protocols governing sensitive material.

Republicans were quick to point out what they see as a double standard.

“If then-Vice President Biden took classified documents with him and held them for years and criticized former President Trump during that same time that he had those classified documents … I wonder why the press isn’t asking the same questions of him as vice president taking classified documents that they were asking President Trump,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said to reporters on Tuesday.

David A. Sklansky, former federal prosecutor and a professor of criminal law at Stanford University, said Biden’s case “isn’t remotely comparable” to Trump’s.

“What made the situation at Mar-a-Lago so serious wasn’t that classified documents were found there,” Sklansky told VOA. “It was the stonewalling and deception about those documents, and the repeated obstruction of the government’s efforts to recover the documents. There is no evidence of any of that here.”

Democratic lawmaker Pete Aguilar called Republicans’ move to investigate the president “hypocrisy at its finest,” saying that Republicans did not consider investigating the hundreds of documents found in Trump’s home to be a priority at the time.

“What President Biden did was disclose this to the Archives, let law enforcement know,” he said. “That is exactly the way that you should handle this.”

The White House has not confirmed whether the classified documents found at the Biden Penn Center include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics including Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, as reported by CNN.

The Department of Justice and the FBI declined VOA’s request to comment, while Lausch’s office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have not responded to VOA’s queries.

Katherine Gypson and Masood Farivar contributed to this report.

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House GOP Kicks Off Majority With Vote to Slash IRS Funding

House Republicans began their tenure in the majority Monday by passing a bill that would rescind nearly $71 billion that Congress had provided the IRS, fulfilling a campaign promise even though the legislation is unlikely to advance further.

Democrats had beefed up the IRS over the next decade to help offset the cost of top health and environmental priorities they passed last year and to replenish an agency struggling to provide basic services to taxpayers and ensure fairness in tax compliance.

The money is on top of what Congress provides the IRS annually through the appropriations process and immediately became a magnet for GOP campaign ads in the fall, claiming that the boost would lead to an army of IRS agents harassing hard-working Americans.

The bill to rescind the money passed the House on a party-line vote of 221-210. The Democratic-controlled Senate has vowed to ignore it.

Shortly before the vote, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that rescinding the extra IRS funding would increase deficits over the coming decade by more than $114 billion. That created an awkward moment for Republicans, who have been saying that addressing deficits would be one of their top concerns in the majority.

Still, the CBO’s projection didn’t appear to dampen Republican support. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said the extra IRS funding Democrats provided last year was for one purpose.

“To go after small businesses, hard-working Americans to try to raise money for reckless spending, reckless spending that has caused $31 trillion in debt in this nation,” Duncan said.

Duncan and other GOP lawmakers routinely say the extra funding will be used to hire 87,000 new agents to target Americans, but that’s misleading. The number is based on a Treasury Department plan saying that many IRS employees would be hired over the next decade if it got the money. But those employees will not all be hired at the same time, they will not all be auditors and many will be replacing some 50,000 employees who are expected to quit or retire in coming years.

“This debate about IRS lends itself to be the most dishonest, demagogic rhetoric that I have seen in the Congress at any point in time,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Charles Rettig, the former commissioner of the IRS, said in a final message to the agency in November that the additional money would help in many areas, not just beefing up tax enforcement. He said the investments would make it “even less likely for honest taxpayers to hear from the IRS or receive an audit letter.”

Additional funding for the agency has been politically controversial since 2013, when the IRS under the Obama administration was found to have used inappropriate criteria to review tea party groups and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status.

In the ensuing years, the IRS was mostly on the losing end of congressional funding fights, even as a subsequent 2017 report found that both conservative and liberal groups were chosen for scrutiny.

In April, Rettig told lawmakers the agency’s budget has decreased by more than 15% over the past decade when accounting for inflation and said the number of full-time employees — 79,000 in the last fiscal year — was close to 1974 levels.

But Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., and other Republicans weren’t buying the argument that the funding would be focused on auditing the wealthy.

“This is meant to nickel-and-dime, audit and harass America’s small businesses and families, who they know cannot afford the legal fees to fight this army,” Malliotakis said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said a decade of Republican-led budget cuts gutted the IRS.

“The only way that House Republicans could make it any more obvious that they’re doing a favor for wealthy tax cheats is by coming out and saying it in exactly those words,” Wyden said. “This bill is going nowhere in the Senate.”

And the White House said President Joe Biden would veto the bill if it gets to his desk, saying that the wealthiest 1% of Americans hide about 20% of their income so they don’t have to pay taxes on it, shifting more of the tax burden to the middle class.

“With their first economic legislation of the new Congress, House Republicans are making clear that their top economic priority is to allow the rich and multibillion-dollar corporations to skip out on their taxes, while making life harder for ordinary, middle-class families that pay the taxes they owe,” the White House said.

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US House Adopts Rules Sought by Hardliners to Control McCarthy

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives on Monday adopted a package of internal rules that give right-wing hardliners more leverage over the chamber’s newly elected Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy.   

Lawmakers voted 220-213 to approve the legislation. One Republican, Representative Tony Gonzales, joined all 212 Democrats in voting against the rules package. Another Republican did not vote.   

The rules package, which will govern House operations over the next two years, represented an early test of McCarthy’s ability to keep his caucus together, after he suffered the humiliation of 14 failed ballots last week before finally being elected speaker on Saturday.   

The legislation includes key concessions that hardliners sought and McCarthy agreed to in his quest for the speaker’s gavel. The changes include allowing a single lawmaker to call for his removal at any time. Other changes would place new restrictions on federal spending, potentially limiting McCarthy’s ability to negotiate government funding packages with President Joe Biden, whose fellow Democrats control the Senate.   

Democrats denounced the legislation as a rules package for “MAGA extremists” that would favor wealthy corporations over workers, undermine congressional ethics standards and lead to further restrictions on abortion services. 

“These rules are not a serious attempt at governing. They’re essentially a ransom note to America from the extreme right,” Representative Jim McGovern said.   

Gonzales, the lone Republican to oppose the legislation, said he objected to potential limits on U.S. defense spending at a time of growing tensions with Russia and China.   

His vote came despite an earlier warning from the grass-roots conservative group FreedomWorks, which said on Twitter: “If Tony’s a ‘NO’ on the House Rules Package he should not be welcomed into the 119th Congress.”   

Republicans have a narrow majority of 222-212 in the House, after winning fewer seats than expected in November’s midterm elections. This has amplified the hardliners’ power and raised questions about how the divided Congress will function.   

Lawmakers face critical tasks in the year ahead including addressing the federal government’s $31.4 trillion debt limit. Failure to do that, or even a long standoff, would shake the global economy.   

Other changes include a 72-hour waiting period between when a bill is introduced and when it can get a vote, a cap on government spending at 2022 levels, and the creation of a committee to investigate the Justice Department. 

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