Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, Jan. 20, 2023

Jan. 20, 2023 AT 9:18 p.m. EST

The discovery of additional classified documents at President Biden’s home added more tension to an already growing problem. Plus, House Republicans are demanding spending cuts before they agree to raise the debt ceiling. Join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, Jonathan Lemire of Politico, Weijia Jiang of CBS News, Nia-Malika Henderson of CNN and Lisa Desjardins of PBS NewsHour to discuss this and more.

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Yamiche Alcindor: Document disclosure, the debt ceiling fight, and alarming political violence.

Joe Biden, U.S. President: There's no there, there.

Yamiche Alcindor: President Biden downplays the controversy over classified documents found in his office and home --

Rep. James Comer (R-KY): There are a lot of questions and I think Joe Biden is going to find out that the rules do apply to him.

Yamiche Alcindor: -- as Republicans continue their attack.

And –

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): Why won't we sit down now, set a budget, set a path to get us to a balanced budget?

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House Press Secretary: There will not be any negotiations over the debt ceiling.

Yamiche Alcindor: -- the U.S. hits its debt limit while the two parties disagree on how to move forward.

Plus, a former GOP candidate is arrested for violently targeting Democrats, next.

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. For the second straight week, President Biden is facing scrutiny over his handling of classified documents from his days as vice president. On Saturday, the White House released a statement announcing more classified documents had been discovered at Biden's home late last week. That third find is an addition to the initial discovery in November of secret documents in his former Washington office. There was also a second set of materials found in December in his garage.

Now, House Republicans, including Representative James Comer, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, well, they were quick to pounce.

James Comer: The president mishandled classified documents. They are not being transparent with the American people.

Yamiche Alcindor: But this week, President Biden, he sought to downplay the controversy.

Joe Biden: We are fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly. I think you are going to find there is nothing there. I have no regrets. I am following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do.

Yamiche Alcindor: Despite the tension, the White House tried to project a message of business as usual. On Thursday, President Biden traveled to California to visit areas devastated by extreme weather, and on Sunday, Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Florida to mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which, of course, was overturned last summer.

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Nia-Malika Henderson, a senior political analyst for CNN, and here in the studio, Lisa Desjardins, Congressional Correspondent for PBS Newshour, Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent at CBS News, and Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief for Politico and the host Way Too Early on MSNBC. Yes, we are still happy you are up because you are often awake way too early.

Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief, Politico: I am heavily caffeinated.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes, you are, as we all are.

So, Weijia, I want to start with you. Take us inside the White House. President Biden, he finally broke his silence after days of not wanting to answer direct questions about the classified documents. What led to that and how much pressure is he feeling?

Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent, CBS News: Well, I think the White House from the beginning has had a very carefully crafted strategy, not only for dealing with the documents but also for how to communicate that with the people. As you know, CBS News, our team broke the story and the big question after that was why didn't you disclose it yourself if you knew about these back in November, if you knew about more documents found in December at his Wilmington house?

And I think that's really what they are struggling with more, because this president pledged transparency. So, yes, there is transparency when it comes to the White House cooperating with the Department of Justice, transparency with the American public is very different. And that's I think where the discrepancy is.

But in terms of the White House's strategy for dealing with it now, it is very clear. And I think what we heard from President Biden yesterday was veering away from that. Because sometimes this is a president who cannot help himself, he wants to weigh in. He has said he wants to talk about this. In that clip you played, he went on to say, there is no there, there. And so the White House has gone to great lengths to separate itself from the DOJ, so it now begs the question of why is the president weighing in on what he thinks the conclusion will be?

And so I think this is a pain for them right now, but if you talk to officials, they say the American people do not care about this. So, I think they are just really trying to turn the page as quickly as possible.

Yamiche Alcindor: And trying to turn the page, because, obviously, as you said, CBS News broke this story, I wonder what you think, what your team thinks of the unanswered questions that are really making it continue to be a pain for the White House.

Weijia Jiang: Well, I think the biggest one is what is in these documents, right? I mean, if it is something that's not top-secret that would harm national security, then they could get out in front of it and disclose whatever they could about it to at least talk about the level of sensitivity, which they cannot do now, of course, because there is a special counsel investigation.

We also don't know exactly why the personal attorneys for the president were sifting through these documents in the first place. I mean, if they were packing up an office, I know when I pack something up, I am not going through folders if it is just for the purpose of packing, right? And we also don't know how many other documents may be out there because there is no clarity about exactly where the search has extended too and if there could be more documents elsewhere.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Jonathan, I mean, there are so many questions, as Weijia just pointed out. There's reporting that President Biden is frustrated. There's also reporting that he was supposed to have the A team. These are the experienced people. How did we get here?

Jonathan Lemire: Yes. He was visibly frustrated yesterday when asked about this in California and saying America doesn't care about this. You should be talking about things that matter, in that case, it's the storm damage out there.

It does seem -- people have wondered if this undermines, undercuts their argument that the adults are back. That was part of their selling after the chaos of the Trump years. The Biden and his team will be the grownups in the room, they would avoid mistakes like this.

And this is where, of course, we should not, this is not totally comparable to the situation with Donald Trump and the documents at Mar-a-Lago. Those are hundreds and documents seemingly willfully attempts to not give them back. And that's not the case with Biden. But still as politicians from both sides have weighed in privately, like they're not comparable but there's enough similarities that it's going to muddy the waters.

And I think one of -- the other unanswered question from a number of frustrated Democrats that I have talked to, well, as soon as those documents were discovered in Mar-a-Lago in August, why not search all the Biden properties then? Why not just be sure you don't have a similar problem? There was nothing like that happened, and, in fact, nothing was searched at all until those first documents were inadvertently found at the Penn Biden Center in early November and then not neatly disclosed.

Weijia Jiang: And not only were they not searched but President Biden has his own words now that are being used against him by critics, because when the documents at Mar-a-Lago were discovered, he said, how could anybody be so irresponsible?

Yamiche Alcindor: I mean, what, of course, is fascinating about this is, one, that Trump's issues are different, Lisa, but that still you have President Biden now facing fierce criticism from Republicans who have new control over the Pennsylvania side that you spend so much of your time on the Hill. So, tell me a little bit about Republicans that are getting ready to vote, criticize and investigate this, while also threading the needle of kind of ignoring former President Trump's handling of classified documents.

Lisa Desjardins, Congressional Correspondent, PBS Newshour: I know. Something happened when Kevin McCarthy was moving at the speaker's office in his boxes. He found some kind of crazy lucky rabbit's foot because after basically the worst ascension into the speaker dome in modern history, they get this gift.

Now, not only had Democrats been smug about the Trump documents for a long time, going back, oh, what about Hillary Clinton, now, this is another cause for investigation for them and the White House continues to not answer questions, continues to not look transparent, continues to raise doubts not just about President Biden but about Democrats themselves.

So, I think Republicans are taking a tack where they are not fully pouncing, they believe that the White House is actually causing enough damage themselves if they can take it more slowly than they usually do at this kind of issue.

Yamiche Alcindor: I mean, fascinating, and in some ways, it is an issue that is playing itself out, as you said, with the White House and sort of having its own problems because they're not able to directly answer questions.

Nia, I want to come to you. There is a Quinnipiac University poll that found -- oh, we don't have Nia. Apparently, we don't have Nia.

So, I ask you, Lisa. There's a poll -- we spend so much time when we work together on polls. So, there was a poll that shows 62 percent of registered voters believing that President Biden acted inappropriately. This includes 85 percent of Republicans but also 36 percent of Democrats. I wonder what that means, even if Biden is saying this is different, that the American people are looking at this and saying, this isn't good.

Lisa Desjardins: Right, that's huge. Because, remember, the midterms, one of the reasons that Democrats did so well, did better than they were expected is because their base believed in their candidates and showed up. Republicans had a candidate problem. Democrats stood with Democrats even amid those kinds of doubts. If they're having those kinds of numbers, that is something that can really snowball over the next coming months.

Jonathan Lemire: And at least for now, it's probably likely more of a political problem than a legal one. Because, I mean, right now, the Biden team has said this was a mistake, they didn't mean to do this, they are cooperating with the investigation, they got a special counsel now too, as does former President Trump. Some in the White House suggests, though that's going to be painful process in the short-term, but long-term, maybe that's even a good thing because they will be able to rebut any claims of bias from the Department of Justice. But it does take a hit right now.

For a president who, frankly, was on a real winning streak, the midterms, Democrats did much better than expected, they got a lot of legislation done last year, he has received high marks for leadership, keeping the allies together in the war between Ukraine and Russia, and we were on the verge of his announcement likely to run in 2024. And this is just a bit of hiccup for the west wing.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Nia, John did say that this could be a hick up to President Biden, I wonder what you are hearing from your sources, especially when it comes to the way that the American public might see this documents issue, if a complicates President Biden's run possibly from reelection. There are sources telling a number of outlets that he is planning to announce likely after the state of the union.

Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Analyst, CNN: And, listen, that was always the plan. So, there might be a sort of temporary hiccup now, he is sticking with the plan of announcing for his reelection bid in 2024. But Democrats I talked to about this say, listen, this is sort of a tempest in a D.C. teapot, that it is much ado about nothing.

You saw, I think, President Biden echo that today. They think that voters are much more savvy than we give them credit for, that they sort of lived through this with Hillary Rodham Clinton, they lived through this obviously with what happened with the Donald Trump as well very recently, and they can tell the difference between whether or not there is something possibly nefarious going on that would possibly warrant something like we saw with Donald Trump versus what we are seeing with Joe Biden.

I do think there is something else at play here. Joe Biden, in terms of his political brand, it is that he is different from Donald Trump, he is competent, he's been in public office and public life many, many years. So, that was part of his calling card. There is also, I think, something else. Generally, people think of him as being a decent human being, a decent person, a family man, he goes to church, he is loyal to his wife. And those sorts of intangibles, I think, will serve him very well as whatever unfolds with the special counsel.

Listen, there is fear, though, I mean, with a special counsel, we have seen, for instance, with bill Clinton, it can sort of begin with a real estate deal and end with a soiled blue dress, right, and an impeachment. I'm not suggesting that there is anything like that with Joe Biden but we do know that once you give sort of a special counsel this kind of power, things can go any sort of way. So, there is a sort of latent fear, I think, among Democrats about that, whether or not this will end up in a different way than it began. But they are also heartened by the sure footing the White House seems to be on over these last days, lots of hiccups, lots of sort of fumbling on the message front but it seems to be that they have righted the course in terms of the political message.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, yes, I want to stick with you. Because as the White House is dealing with this, in some ways, trying to pivot to business as usual, part of business as usual Kamala Harris going to give this speech about abortion. It is going to be the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision. We had the March for Life, which is a -- these are advocates of restricting abortion who had a big march today. They used to go to the Supreme Court. Now, they are also going to Congress, marking that as a new sort of battlefield. I'm wondering what you make of that and where the battle is there when it comes to abortion in this country.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Listen, it has begun again. I think we saw a 50-year battle. It culminated in one way with that Dobbs decision and we are going to see 20, 30, 40 more years of battles. I think, practically, we are going to see more births, right, in particular states that have high poverty levels, high infant and maternal mortality, there is some (INAUDIBLE) of like 50,000 additional births. So, that will be something that means something practically and economy for women and their families.

In terms of politically, I think you're going to see in 2024 the so-called pro-life movement, they are going to try to put up a candidate that wants to have a federal abortion ban. In terms of I think the pro-choice movement, you saw I think a kind of renewed commitment to the pro-choice movement, and a pro-choice situation in Roe v. Wade in a way that I think Democrats and liberals won't so fiercely proponents of abortion. I think you saw in 2022 what that meant for the ballot box. Democrats did much better than they expected to, and part of that was because Republicans were seen as very radical in terms of abortion.

So, I think there is going be very much a renewed fight, a battle around the abortion pill, which, of course, got FDA approval and some pharmacists are going to selling that in different states, particularly blue states. So, it aint over by any means. We saw what happened over these last 50 years. There is going to be renewed energy, renewed fight and sort of renewed political battle lines drawn around this for many, many years to come.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Nia, you are using the word, renewed fight in battle. You're talking about abortion. But you could also be talking about the debt ceiling. Because on Thursday, the United States, well, it hit its debt limit, we did, as a country. The Treasury Department put in place what it calls extraordinary measures to ensure the American government pays its bills. The issue isn't expected to come to a head until June when the U.S. could potentially default on its debt.

In the meantime, House Republicans, well, they want to negotiate and are demanding spending cuts before they agree to raise the borrowing cap. But the White House and Democrats, well, they are refusing to negotiate.

So, Lisa, you are, of course, the wonky Hill reporter, the perfect person to ask this question to you. What in the world is going on, how worried should we be as June sort of where this is really coming to a head?

Lisa Desjardins: I love explaining this kind of story because it is so important, the stakes are so high for us, for the world economy, all of it. How to do it quickly? I will say this. I think that, reasonably, what we have right here is we have Democrats digging in, saying we are not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling, fine. Debt ceiling, as separate from spending, we all get that they are separate.

However, Republicans also make a case that we have a serious debt problem. In the time I've been speaking to, for example, $2.6 million in debt we have spent as a country, that's $2.6 million than any can get their head around just in one minute. So, there is a real spending problem. Republicans are raising that. The issue is that Republicans now are ready to use kind of scorched-earth tactics. And both sides, guys, and you maybe be picking up this too, I feel like the bases are digging in with righteousness in a way that makes me think that we really could end up with a serious, dangerous situation in June. There's no question to resolve this, they do have to negotiate.

I think that is what's going to happen. They will try for some kind of guardrails, maybe on spending, maybe a longer-term process for how the budget can be tackled, but right now, Republicans are feeling like, no, we've got to cut the budget back more than any Democrats ever going to agree to, and that is really the problem.

Jonathan Lemire: And today is a microcosm of how that struggle to negotiate is going to play out. President Biden talking -- unrelated comments were made, offhand remark, yes, we will talk to the other side, Kevin McCarthy immediately puts out a tweet, yes, lets negotiate. This is what Republicans want to do. The White House then puts out a statement clarifying, well, we are not negotiating over the debt ceiling. There are some things we have to get done and points out every time that it got done without any hassle during the Trump administration a couple of times when Democrats were the minority.

Lisa Desjardins: Without and hassle or stretch, yes.

Jonathan Lemire: That's their argument. They're argument is about that.

But even just talking about this is going to rattle markets. That's the fear, is that this is going to -- as we know, this is going to come down to the deadline most likely. But even in the weeks running up to it, there is a fear that something could happen, there's going to be economic to impacts for all of us.

Lisa Desjardins: And super quickly, the other problem here is a lot of the Republicans who are playing this game who want to go right up to the edge, in a way, they have already won. Because what they want is process changes, they want a different way of going about things in the House. So, really, how much do they care, how much the spending changes now or later? And that is a real issue going down the pike.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Weijia, with all that is going on, Kevin McCarthy says he's accepted an invitation to go to the White House. So, what are they going to talk about if President Biden is saying, I'm not negotiating, but, yes, come down to the White House.

Weijia Jiang: This is something that Jon just mentioned. Yes, he tweeted that out, and then the White House responded and basically said, look, there is no invitation on the table to just come and talk about the debt ceiling. We would love to talk about a wide range of economic issues.

I will say that my phone rang and it was White House officials saying, hey, we just want to make sure you saw this statement, because they really want people to know that they are not changing that flag it. It is in the ground. They are not going to negotiate. And, by the way, there is no date set for any meeting between these two men anytime on anything. So, it is a lot of show.

Yamiche Alcindor: No meeting set at any time to negotiate on anything. We have to make sure we underline that point from Weijia.

Weijia Jiang: Again, for now, as of tonight.

Yamiche Alcindor: Well, there's also, of course, another really issue that was bubbling up this week that I wanted to get to, that we wanted to get to, on Washington Week, and that is, on Wednesday, Solomon Pena, a former GOP New Mexico statehouse candidate, was charged with multiple counts in connection with shootings at the Albuquerque homes of four Democratic-elected officials. Pena allegedly hired four men to conduct the shootings in December and January. This news comes as officials revealed that last year, the U.S. Capitol police investigated 7,501 threats against members of Congress.

So, Nia, what do you make of Pena being charged, the idea of that we're even -- we've gotten here, that there's all that scary video of him showing up to his opponents' houses and making threats, what do you make of all this?

Nia-Malika Henderson: Yes. Listen, there has been a tenfold increase in threats against lawmakers going back to 2016. Many people sort of tie this to the rise of Trump, the rise of Trumpism and the kind of rhetorical violence we have heard from him over these many years.

Susan Collins, of course, the senator from Maine, in October, said she would not be surprised if at some point a lawmaker was assassinated. We saw, of course, what happened with Nancy Pelosi's husband. They were looking for her. They ended up attacking her husband.

And so, unfortunately, this isn't a surprise to anyone. Lawmakers talk about the threats they've received, the increased need for security, and, listen, the need also to tamp down the violent rhetoric and the conspiracy theories. And some of this and grows out of this kind of election denialism. This particular gentleman, for instance, thought that he didn't lose and he was sort of going on a rampage as a result of it.

So, we are in very, very difficult times. I think if you are a lawmaker, you were used to kind of nasty phone calls at some point if you were an elected official, but now, the threat has gotten so much worse and lawmakers are very nervous about this. And some of this stuff has been visited upon them, lawmakers in Congress and, of course, across the nation as well.

And you hope that at some point some of the rhetoric is tamped down on. And it isn't really both sides, right? It is more on the right at this point. And you talk to folks at the FBI, you talk to folks in law enforcement, there is real concern. But it used to be sort of there was a threat from outside the country's borders, but now there is a threat from within. So, you see these incidents happening. And, listen, lawmakers are not surprised at these kinds of incidents and they are certainly nervous and scared and stepping up security as much as they can.

Yamiche Alcindor: And a quick follow-up, Nia. I mean, Pena lost by 48 points, 48 points. This is not a close race. I wonder how that makes governing and how that also impacts voters the American people, voters when you think I want a government that governing but also you have people who are going to follow Pena and say, well, he never conceded, this is maybe a rightful thing that he should have done, not shooting a people but at least contesting the election that was clearly lost by him.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Yes. Listen, I mean, exhibit A is Donald Trump, right? I mean, I think he has set the example for this, of this idea that you can clearly lose an election but you can also spread a lie that it was a rigged election and that people were out to get you and their votes that weren't counted or Italy changed votes from Trump to Biden, whatever these sort of conspiracy theories are. You don't know how they're going to land on unstable, criminal elements of the country. And you sort of saw that mix with this particular gentleman.

And, again, there isn't any sense from what I can tell that lawmakers, particularly on the right, and sort of the chattering classes on the right, are interested in sort of tamping down the rhetoric. There is this rhetoric around there being enemies on the other side and people who aren't following the rule of law and conducting elections in the way that they should.

Listen, I think we are glad there were not many election deniers that came out of the 2022 cycle that people sort of conceded and walked away, but this, of course, was a different instance and you hope that this is something, that going forward, doesn't happen more frequently. But, again, there is a lot of fear among lawmakers that this is going to become much more routine.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Weijia, I mean, we covered the Trump administration. She said Trump, and I literally had to flashback to you in the rose garden with all of those wild times. I wonder what you make of what Nia is saying here.

Weijia Jiang: Well, I think it's not just lawmakers, but President Biden has issued this warning himself. It was his closing message right before the midterm elections that there is a real threat to democracy, and he got criticized for that, especially by Republicans who said he has no idea what voters really care about, he is out of touch but it ended up being a winning message. And then after that, even though we didn't see, of course, what we saw on January 6th, the president continues to issue warnings that there could be a repeat of that or even worse.

And so I think that is the message they are trying to portray, to let people know, that it is not just something that seems like it couldn't happen because it is happening.

Yamiche Alcindor: And in the last 30 seconds here, Lisa, I'll go to you, because, obviously, you came face-to-face with this when you covered January 6.

Lisa Desjardins: So, at the Capitol, there's still a lot of raw fear and real fear. I know members of Congress who have moved their house in the last four months because of threats. They've moved to an entire new house. I also want to say it's not just here in Washington. This week, I noticed that the chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, in his annual address, said his judges need more security because they are under threat. So, it is bubbling down.

Yamiche Alcindor: Definitely. Well, we'll have to leave it there for now, but a lively conversation and definitely important topics. Thank you to our panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

And don't forget to watch PBS News Weekend on Saturday for a look at the antigovernment protests in Peru that are becoming increasingly deadly.

I am Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.

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