LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: President Biden's document discovery and McCarthy's first week as a speaker.
MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Attorney General Merrick Garland takes action after classified documents are found in President Biden's former office and Delaware home.
KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: A thorough review will show these documents were inadvertently misplaced.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: The White House goes on defense -- REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): They knew this before the election but they kept it a secret from the American public.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: -- as the new speaker seizes on the revelation, adding it to the House GOP's growing list of investigations.
Plus -- UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Enough is enough, and he should resign.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Republicans' slim majority has its own problems, as calls grow within the party for one new lawmaker to step down, next.
Good evening and welcome to Washington Week.
I'm Laura Barron-Lopez.
Yamiche Alcindor is away.
President Biden is dealing with his own classified document controversy this week after back-to-back days of revelations and bruising headlines.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that in early November, a set of classified documents from Biden's days as vice president were found in an office he used at a think tank.
The next day, a second set of classified documents were found this where found this time in his Delaware home.
On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the matter.
Before Garland's announcement, the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy addressed the growing controversy.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. President: People know I take classified material seriously.
I also said we are cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department review.
MCCARTHY: I think Congress has to investigate this.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: This all comes two months after Garland assigned a special counsel to investigate former President Donald Trump's handling of classified documents that were seized from his Mar-a-Lago home.
Joining me to discuss this and more, Nicholas Confessore, Political Reporter at The New York Times, and joining me in the studio, Nancy Cordes, Chief White House Correspondent at CBS News, Eugene Daniels, White House Correspondent and co-Author of Playbook for Politico, and Marianna Sotomayor, Congressional Reporter for The Washington Post.
Thank you all for being here.
Nancy, I want to start with you.
CBS broke the story about Biden's classified documents.
So, what do we know so far about the situation and about the special counsel investigation?
NANCY CORDES, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, CBS NEWS: So, what we now know is that there were approximately 20 classified documents that were found in two different locations, about ten documents in what we are told is a locked closet in the former vice president's office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., and then fewer than ten documents at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, most of them in the garage.
Some of the documents were labeled top secret, which is the highest level of classification.
What we also know is that the attorney general, Merrick Garland, has now appointed a special counsel to investigate.
That basically resets the clock.
This probe had been going on for about two months.
Now, Robert Hur, who is the former U.S. attorney for the district of Maryland, who was appointed to that position by former President Trump, he's a Republican, he'll start all over.
He can interview whoever he wants.
The investigation can go where he wants it to go and these things don't tend to wrap up very quickly so we are looking at the possibility of another six months to a year.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: That's right.
It could go quite a while.
We really don't know.
Eugene, what are the conversations happening right now behind closed doors inside the White House?
What is the atmosphere like there?
EUGENE DANIELS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Yes.
I mean, when you're there and you're talking to aides, what they realize and they have finally started to concede is that this week did not go well for them when it comes to being transparent about this, right?
We only found out about these documents because of CBS' reporting.
They didn't come out and say this happened when it happened in November, when these documents were found, or in December when the second tranche of documents were found.
And when Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was asked about this, what she said when asked whether or not there were more documents, they kind of hemmed and hawed.
And this is a White House that has promised transparency.
I think what they are dealing with now is the difference between honesty and forthrightness and transparency.
They did do what is considered the right thing, calling the National Archives, having them come get these documents, being upfront when they were asked, but they weren't transparent and they finally know that.
But as you well know, this is a White House that once they kind of decide on a path that they're going to on, they are going to stick to it.
They are stubborn in that way sometimes.
And so whether or not we are going to see them back that up and try and be a little more forthcoming is something we are going to have to watch for the next couple of weeks.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: That's very true.
President Biden, when he picks a position, he tends to stick to it.
But on these two cases, despite some of the similarities in these cases, there are significant differences between the two cases of the classified documents.
So, for President Biden, he had a small number of documents.
For Mr. Trump, around 300 classified documents.
For Biden, they were found in his D.C. Office and Delaware home.
Trump's were found at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
And Biden, as Eugene said, voluntarily turned over the documents and immediately whereas Trump's documents were seized in an FBI search after withholding them for more than a year.
And, Nick, I want to bring you in here because Speaker McCarthy immediately said that he thinks that the House should investigate Biden's handling of classified documents and add it to their investigation docket, which includes going after the FBI for its search of Mar-a-Lago.
This reminds me a bit of what happened when House Republicans pursued Hillary Clinton through the Benghazi select committee.
Are we going to see more of the same?
Could we see more Benghazis?
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, look, House Republicans campaigned on investigating the Biden administration.
So, throw on more log on the fire.
I think we will certainly see that.
I would just point out Joe Biden is now under investigation by a Republican special prosecutor, it doesn't get more serious than that.
And so I think the kind of key thing for Biden is the egg on the face here of having attacked former President Trump for his handling of documents, saying how seriously he himself took this matter.
And then to find that he had a box of documents in his garage, as Camaro's kind of garage, I think that's a problem.
Now, with Benghazi, the comparison there is kind of fascinating.
These investigations obviously can quickly become political theater or start that way, and the new speaker, Kevin McCarthy, back in 2015, as you can recall, had gone back on Sean Hannity's show and bragged about how the Benghazi investigation had driven down Secretary Clinton's ratings in the polls.
And that was kind of a saying it out loud moment about the true purpose of I think the half-dozen different probes of Benghazi that we saw from House Republicans.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: I will let it slide there, Nick, because you said Camaro instead of corvette, because President Biden would be upset with you.
But, Marianna, on the Hill, Republicans appear in lockstep on these investigations, on investigating President Biden for the classified documents or elsewhere.
I mean, is there any hesitancy behind closed doors among some moderate Republicans?
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Absolutely not.
A lot of Republicans, even those moderates who actually have bigger questions about why and how come presidents are able to take classified information, I think the moderates are kind of more focused on the process.
But for the most part, a number of Republicans very much want to see this investigation go forward because they did run on the issue of transparency, and that is very much key here.
And even, I think, in the last couple of hours, the judiciary chairman, Jim Jordan, who, of course, has always been talking and criticizing the Biden administration, saying that Biden administration officials need to come forward, talk to Republicans.
I know the intelligence committee, once they are formed, that is a big question, a number of Republicans don't know what committees they serve on right now, they want to see these documents.
And they really want to know why did the Department of Justice just now, because it was revealed through reports, how come they are just now letting everyone know that this happened?
How long did they know that Biden had a hold on classified information?
And they really want to point out a difference between Republican and Democrats, and how there is a new weaponization committee the Republicans just formed, and they want to investigate the FBI, the DOJ, and how they have handled Republicans in the past.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Nancy?
NANCY CORDES: And they are not wasting any time either.
The oversight committee has already sent a letter to the White House telling them they have got two weeks to hand over all White House communication about these classified documents.
And even the Democratic lawmakers I've spoken to, and I am sure it is the same for you, Marianna, they basically concede we are going to get hit on this until the end of time.
Republicans will not let this go despite the very clear differences that you pointed out between these two cases, the Biden case and the Trump case.
They say it definitely muddies the waters for them.
It makes it harder for them to make an example out of former President Trump, even though many of them believe at the end of the day what the special counsel is going to conclude, at least based on the facts we know right now, is that this was a mistake, this was sloppiness, this was accidental, they don't believe that there was any ill intent here.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: But, Marianna, why would Democrats, or have Democrats said that they are going to comply with any of these potential subpoenas that could come along?
Because, as we all know, Kevin McCarthy and Jim Jordan did not comply with the subpoenas that they received from the January 6th committee.
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR: Right.
That's going to be really interesting.
The Democrats did set a precedent of trying to compel Republicans to talk to that committee.
It's going to be interesting to see if Republicans match that and try and ask Democrats to come forward based on what they may know.
We don't know if any congressional Democrat right now was involved in any of these classified information or things like that, but Democrats are very much trying to tow the line here and play it cautiously, really reiterating whenever they can that there is a difference, as we mentioned.
The Biden administration did comply and it was not kept in secret in any way, like Trump, you had to really compel him to turn over those documents.
So, that's likely the messaging that you will continue to hear from Democrats.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Eugene, these revelations hit just as President Biden's approval rating was going up.
I mean, what do you think are the political implications here?
EUGENE DANIELS: Yes.
I mean, he was having a good few weeks, right?
He was riding high after the midterms were not as bad as we all thought they were going to be, right?
They kept the Senate.
They kept it very slim in the House.
He and his team were having conversations about when and where he was going to make an announcement about whether or not he was going to run for president.
They were feeling really good.
And so the political implications are now you have the current president and the former president both being investigated for the mishandling of classified documents.
There are differences, sure, but the American people don't typically care about the minutia of things like that, where we can say that as much as we want, but when you start talking to actual people, what they are going to continue to hear because Republicans are going to make sure they continue to hear it, is that Joe Biden had classified materials somewhere it wasn't supposed to be.
And that is what this White House also knows.
And so as Democrats are going around, they are all on the same page and they're making sure that the differences are made known, it almost may not matter when it comes to how the American people see it.
Joe Biden still has to make a decision publicly about whether or not he is going to run.
This is going to be very difficult to make an announcement that you are going to run for president and say you are going to run for president if there is a special counsel investigation to your mishandling of classified materials.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: But, Nick, what do you think here, because the criminal charges could be very different, especially for president -- former President Donald Trump, because he's facing charges under the Espionage Act or for obstruction?
So, do you think that could loom over 2024 for him or President Biden?
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: It is sort of too soon to say.
Look, I think we have to get to get some basic questions answered, including what kind of classified documents are we talking about.
Was it the cafeteria menu at Langley or nuclear secrets?
And why did they wait until November 2022, two years after the president was first elected?
How did it happen that this was discovered two years later?
I'm curious about that.
It could be a very simple answer.
And the best thing for the Biden people to do is if they think there isn't anything to hide, to try and get tough this investigation as fast as possible, open the door, let the prosecutor come in and try to answer those questions quickly so they can put it behind them.
President Trump has a bigger problem.
There is evidence of intent, which is important in these cases, that he wanted to hold onto them, that he knew he should not have them.
And that was a third or fourth or fifth big difference, right, between these two different cases.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: That's right.
And over on the House side, they definitely are operating under different procedures and not necessarily investigating President Trump at all, former President Trump's actions.
And this week, Kevin McCarthy finally realized his dream of wielding the speaker's gavel.
His first week on the job was relatively easy as Republicans passed a number of party line bills.
But the treasury secretary warned Friday that the country's debt limit will be reached sooner than expected.
In less than a week, the fight to increase it will likely be one of the greatest challenges he will face as speaker.
And a new split among House Republicans was revealed this week, how to deal with freshman New York Congressman George Santos, who is facing increasing pressure from members of his own party to resign?
On the debt limit, because I really do think that it is one of the biggest stories that we're going to see this year.
Marianna, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said today that starting next week she is going to have to use extraordinary measures to make sure that the country does not default on its debt.
How difficult is it going to be for Kevin McCarthy to avoid a fiscal cliff here?
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR: It's going to be incredibly difficult.
When the Republicans won the House and they knew how narrow of a majority they had, they knew that anything was going to be complicated.
They really had to scale back even the messaging bills that they started to put on the floor this week because they knew that anything maybe that needed more compromise likely would not happen.
And I think a lot of them, though optimistic, they saw just how hard it was to elect speaker of the House.
They now know the reality of the difficulties that are to come, and the debt ceiling is number one.
And my colleagues at The Washington Post actually reported a couple of hours ago that part of the deal that McCarthy made with some of the holdouts was to actually propose what Janet Yellen should actually be prioritizing ahead of that debt ceiling, hitting that debt ceiling.
So, that if they can't get anything done, Republicans can say, well, the government should still be paying things like social security and some other things.
However, that means that you might not be able to pay off things, like border security and like the aviation systems, and that is already creating a very big backlash.
Of course, anything that the House proposes, the Senate needs to pass, so it is likely this proposal may not come to be.
But it is already showing just how hard it's going to be for Republicans, especially in the House, to agree on what to do.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes, it is a very slim majority and we still don't know all of the concessions that Kevin McCarthy potentially gave to a lot of those holdouts.
Nancy, in terms of the White House, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, what is their position here on the debt ceiling?
NANCY CORDES: Their position right now is that they are not going to negotiate, that you should not have to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling.
This is simply to allow the U.S. pay the bills for money that has already been allocated by this Congress, by past Congresses, by Democrats and Republicans.
They say no negotiating.
Now, on the other hand, you've got Kevin McCarthy saying this is our big chance, we are going to list us some concessions here.
He has been floating the idea of a spending cap.
This is something Congress has done before, basically saying, okay, we'll agree to raise the debt ceiling in exchange you don't raise spending for a couple of years.
The question is, is that going to fly even with some of his own members?
They want more than a spending cap.
They want to roll back spending.
And the big challenge here is going to be even if he can craft some kind of deal with the White House -- and remember right now, the White House says it's not deal -- can he then sell that to enough of his members to get it across the finish line?
I think that's part of the reason you saw Janet Yellen come out today and say, okay, folks, here is exactly how much time you have come you have until early June.
I can do various things to prioritize how we pay our bills, but June is the deadline and you need to figure it out by then.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes.
Those five core anti-Kevin McCarthy Republicans that held the line all the way to the end, they don't seem at all like they want to vote to increase the debt limit.
So, that's going to be a very risky move there that has real world consequences for a lot of Americans.
Nick, this week, the House, I want to expand out to the other things that they tackled this week, they also voted on two anti-abortion bills, one that would have subjected doctors who performed the procedure to prosecution.
You said that that potentially reflects where the weight of the Republican caucus is.
Why is that?
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: Well, look, I think it shows that in the wake of Roe being overturned, the Republican Party is very committed to further eroding abortion rights across the country.
It's a central mission of their party, so we will see more of that.
I think politically, though, to some extent, it illustrates the bind that Kevin McCarthy is in with a small minority.
The irony of it is that because he has a small minority, he has more hostage to the more extreme elements in his coalition at a moment when it could be smart to try and broaden the coalition.
There are two reasons why the Republicans underperformed in 2022, Trump and abortion.
So, it is fascinating to see in the first week of business, they passed these two bills on abortion and they kind of float the idea of erasing Trump's first impeachment from the public record and expunging it, I should say.
It's not the way back to a larger minority in 2024, but, again, it is where the party is going to some extent, and it is what he owes the base of the party.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Eugene, on abortion, as Nick was saying, it was one of the big reasons that Republicans didn't do as well as they thought in the midterms.
It was a big motivating factor for Democrats, for Democratic voters.
How does the White House view these House bills that are passing?
EUGENE DANIELS: Yes.
I mean, what they would say is this is more proof that they want to toss red meat, as Nick was saying, to a base that, one, isn't growing, it doesn't seem -- it hasn't seem to be growing, and that they got it right, that they spent a lot of time talking about abortion, talking about abortion access, and telling American voters before the midterms that this is something you are going to see Republicans do and that this is just more of that.
And I think what is really fascinating, Vice President Kamala Harris focused on this a lot, and what you heard as we got it closer to the midterms, was like Democrats telling the White House, stop focusing on abortion, stop focusing on small D democracy and only talk about the economy.
They feel like they got that right.
So, what they're also going to see them do is continue to beat this drum, talk about what that fight against abortion restrictions looks like, what the White House can do with their bully pulpit, and how they are going to team up with states and local officials to actually protect and possibly expand in the states where that is actually possible.
And it is a tough battle because this is an issue that so many Americans agree with, agree on the side with the White House, but you have Republicans who are so staunchly against it, it's not going to be easy for anybody to move forward on this one.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Nancy, how are your sources telling you the White House is preparing for this split Congress now?
NANCY CORDES: Well, they are also going really hard this week in addition to what Eugene was talking about when it comes to abortion.
They also went hard on the Republicans for taking this very early vote to try to rollback new funding for the IRS.
It is not going to go anywhere because Republicans don't control the Senate, but they took this vote in the House and they made a big statement by doing it in the first week, even though the Congressional Budget Office had determined that actually it would add to the deficit over the next ten years because the IRS would be in a more difficult position when it comes to cracking down on tax cheats and basically collecting taxes from wealthy Americans.
So, the White House and the president himself went after Republicans hard for that one, arguing that they don't want to shrink the deficit after all and that that's not what the American people want, to be fighting for the wealthy, to stop paying their taxes.
Republicans are undeterred.
They have two years until their next election.
So, they don't really have to worry right now about winning the middle and winning independents right now.
It's all about showing their base we are going to do what we told you we would do.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: And as they are facing a split Congress, I mean, House Republicans themselves have a lot of drama going on internally.
And, Nick, on George Santos, because we've got to get to him, he is facing a lot of calls from New York Republicans, including some members of the House GOP themselves, to resign.
But Leader McCarthy -- excuse me, Speaker McCarthy is not calling on him to resign and fellow GOP leaders are not calling on him as well.
Why do you think that is?
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: Well, because they have to have his vote in the House.
They have a five-seat majority.
They can't afford to alienate a single one.
And he can afford to say let's have the process play out, let's have whatever investigations happen.
It's not up to McCarthy to decide really, and he can say, look, it's not up to me.
But I do think, look, like if you had to ask why is he saying, I am not going to resign, I don't think there is any lesson from the past five years that would tell George Santos -- the past ten years -- that would tell George Santos yes to resign, because Donald Trump went through an entire presidency full of revelations about inventing and falsifying huge aspects of his personal life, his business history, his business acumen.
It did not matter to his voters.
It did not matter.
The myth was stronger than the reality.
And George Santos is probably counting on people not caring that much.
I think in his case, it is obviously -- it's more stunning and more egregious, it's almost everything he has ever said at sometimes it seems like.
But I think that there's no question that for Santos, what is the upside in resigning?
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: Right.
The upside would potential not be a very good one because his house leans Democratic.
And so it would potentially just go to Democrats if a special election were called, right, Marianna?
Any final thoughts there?
MARIANNA SOTOMAYOR: Yes, no, absolutely.
The big difference here is just what Nick said.
The leadership wants to make sure that they can keep a four-vote majority and that is it.
You would have three.
Let's remember what he saw in the last couple of weeks.
It is tough.
LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ: It's tough.
It's all about keeping the majority.
We have to leave it there for now but thank you to the panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting.
On Saturday on PBS News Weekend, the health and financial costs of the looming COVID vaccine price hikes.
But before we go, as you know, this show features some of the best reporters in journalism.
One of those reporters, Blake Hounshell of The New York Times, died this week at the age of 44.
Nick, Eugene and I worked with Blake and there is no doubt he left an indelible mark.
We send our deepest condolences to his family and to those who loved and worked with him.
Good night from Washington.