Document Differences & Continued House Chaos As McCarthy Try’s To Maintain Power

Heather Cox Richardson

The fact that former vice president Mike Pence’s lawyer disclosed on January 18, 2023, that Pence also had documents with classified markings at his Indiana home should tell us a couple of things.

First, the discovery suggests that it is apparently not uncommon for officials to find such documents among their papers, although the level of classification clearly matters. There have been complaints for a long time that people overuse classification in general at the lower levels. We do not know the level of classification of the documents found at the Biden and Pence residences, but it is possible to imagine lower-level documents slipped in among their papers when they were packed up to move from one office to another.

Indeed, former National Security Agency top lawyer Glenn Gerstell told Dustin Volz and Warren P. Strobel of the Wall Street Journal that problems arise when officials move in and out of office. “At the end of an administration there is obviously a desire, and a requirement, by the outgoing administration to remain active until the last minute,” he said. “You’re almost asking for trouble.”

Second, it highlights the difference between officials like Biden and Pence who inadvertently find such documents among their other papers and alert the National Archives and Research Administration (NARA), and those who stonewall NARA and the FBI, as Trump did. This distinction is really the crux of the difference between Biden and Pence, on the one hand, and Trump, on the other. 

On January 18, Pence’s lawyer Greg Jacob wrote to the acting director of NARA that “a small number of documents bearing classified markings…were inadvertently boxed and transported to the personal home of the former Vice President at the end of the last Administration. Vice President Pence was unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence…and stands ready and willing to cooperate fully with the National Archives and any appropriate inquiry.” 

The letter says that, after hearing about the discovery of documents marked classified in Biden’s possession, Pence, “out of an abundance of caution,” hired lawyers with experience in handling classified documents to look through records stored in his home. When they turned up such documents, they locked them up “pending further direction on proper handling from the National Archives.” 

The letter ended: “Vice President Pence has directed his representatives to work with the National Archives to ensure their prompt and secure return. Vice President Pence appreciates the good work of the staff at the National Archives and trusts they will provide proper counsel in response to this letter.”

Law professor and legal commentator Ryan Goodman tweeted: “This is how you keep your client out of jail.” He added: “Like the known facts in Biden case, the strong contrast with Trump’s conduct shows why Trump is in so much legal jeopardy and stands to be indicted.”

Today, Judge Robert McBurney, who oversaw the grand jury investigating Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential vote in Georgia, heard arguments about whether to release the grand jury’s report. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis urged McBurney not to release the report, for which many media outlets have been clamoring. “In this case, the state understands the media’s inquiry and the world’s interest. But we have to be mindful of protecting future defendants’ rights,” Willis said. She went on to say that decisions about charging individuals in that case are “imminent.” 

That is, Willis signaled that her office is likely to indict certain people, and she worries that releasing the report will taint the trials. 

Also today, Representative George Santos (R-NY) revised his financial reports to say that a $500,000 loan to his campaign did not, in fact, come from his personal funds. Nor did a $125,000 loan that had also previously been attributed to him, according to the new filings. But while that new paperwork said Santos did not, in fact, put up the money, it didn’t say where the funds did come from. 

Santos’s troubles are pulling in Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the powerful lawmaker who backed Santos during the campaign. Donors told Pamela Brown and Gregory Krieg of CNN that they supported the unknown Santos because of Stefanik’s endorsement and now feel betrayed. Santos’s extraordinary lies taint the Republicans as a whole in New York, while the conference’s determination to stand behind him to keep his vote in House speaker Kevin McCarthy’s weak majority ties the party to power rather than principle. 

That drive for power is behind the so-called weaponization committee, put together by McCarthy to fulfill a promise to the right-wing extremists whose votes he needed to become speaker. This committee is the new House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, placed with the Judiciary Committee, and Jim Jordan (R-OH) will chair it. Yesterday in The Bulwark, Jill Lawrence explained that the true goal of the committee is “shoveling paranoia and distortion into the news stream” to make right-wing voters distrust the government even more than they already do. David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who left the party in 2018, told Lawrence: “It’s a drug they’re going to put out on the street for conservative media and conservative voters.” 

McCarthy released the names of the Republican committee members today. There was such interest from Republicans in participating that McCarthy has expanded the original fifteen members of the committee. So far, he has named 12 Republicans. Led by Jordan, they are dominated by extremists and seem likely to try mostly to get airtime on right-wing media, just as Lawrence and Jolly say.

McCarthy fulfilled another promise to the extremists today when he refused to seat Democratic representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, saying that he appreciated the loyalty of House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to his colleagues and continuing, “But I cannot put partisan loyalty ahead of national security, and I cannot simply recognize years of service as the sole criteria for membership on this essential committee. Integrity matters more.”

Because the Intelligence Committee is a select committee, McCarthy has the power to reject members. But this is a breach indeed. He wrote to Jeffries that, in his opinion, the use of the Intelligence Committee in the previous two congresses had made the nation “less safe.” 

Under Schiff, who was chair in those congresses, the committee exposed that then-president Trump had withheld aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Trump to undermine then-candidate Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential run. Schiff then led the House’s impeachment case in the Senate trial.

During those impeachment hearings, Republicans tried to get Swalwell kicked off the committee after news broke that an accused foreign agent had raised money for his campaign in 2014 and put an intern in his House office. She had targeted a number of rising politicians but did not, apparently, do anything illegal or gain access to any classified information.

When informed by the FBI of concerns about the agent, Swalwell immediately cut ties with her and worked with the FBI. An FBI official said Swalwell was “completely cooperative” and “under no suspicion of wrongdoing.” To justify getting rid of Swalwell, McCarthy fell back on what he said was classified information the FBI had shared in a briefing, although other Republican colleagues who had been briefed at the time expressed no concerns then or later, and McCarthy did not express concerns about the other politicians the agent had targeted. 

McCarthy apparently promised to go after Schiff and Swalwell as payback for the removal from all committee assignments—by bipartisan votes—of Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) after it turned out she had endorsed violence against Democratic leaders, and of Paul Gosar (R-AZ) after he published an animated video showing himself attacking Biden and killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). 

Finally, another mass shooting on Monday took seven more lives. So far, 2023 is at an all-time high for mass shootings at this point in the calendar. California has been particularly hard hit in the past weeks, and today its governor, Gavin Newsom, called out Republicans for standing in the way of gun safety.

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