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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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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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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FBI Searches Biden Home, Finds 6 Documents Marked Classified

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

Bob Bauer, the president’s personal lawyer, said the search of the entire premises lasted nearly 13 hours.

The documents with classification markings spanned Biden’s time in the Senate and the vice presidency, while the notes dated to his time as vice president.

The search took place more than a week after Biden’s attorneys found six other 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.

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

Bauer said the FBI requested that the White House not comment on the search before it was conducted. He said the FBI “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.

“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.”

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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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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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