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'Bellyaching': Democratic unity defending Biden begins to see defections

A Democratic effort to discredit GOP lawmakers investigating President Joe Biden is fraying as more Democrats criticize his handling of classified documents.
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Democratic lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 24, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Democratic lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 24.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — A Democratic push to discredit the congressional Republicans who are launching a slew of investigations into President Joe Biden may be fracturing because of an unexpected obstacle: fellow Democrats.

With classified documents from Biden’s vice presidency popping up where they shouldn’t be, Democratic lawmakers are growing more outspoken in their criticism of how he or his aides handled sensitive material that was supposed to have been returned to the government when he left the job in 2017.

As Biden's defenders see it, rebuking him at this combustible moment is a form of self-sabotage. It gives credence and legitimacy to House Republican committee chairs who are trying to use Congress’ subpoena power to weaken Biden ahead of the 2024 election, they argue. A better approach would be to speak in a unified voice and question the motives and intentions of the Republicans who control the House’s investigative machinery and have pointed it squarely at Biden, they added.

“My own view is that the anonymous Democrats who are doing that are actually forwarding a false, right-wing narrative and they should stop the bellyaching,” said David Brock, president of Facts First USA, a group formed to counter Republican-led oversight of the Biden administration. “Democrats are not doing themselves a favor by anonymously criticizing the administration.”

The condemnations aren’t so anonymous anymore. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Sunday called the debacle "irresponsible."

Biden is one of a growing number of top-ranked officials found to have wrongly possessed classified material. FBI agents seized a trove of documents from former President Donald Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, last summer on suspicion that he hadn’t relinquished all that he had taken with him from the White House. And former Vice President Mike Pence revealed this week that he, too, had discovered classified documents in his Indiana home.

“The whole thing is horrible. It’s just bad: bad optics and bad policy,” Manchin said.

A sore point for members of Congress is that they’re compelled to take special precautions when they view classified documents, but the rules don’t seem to apply to the White House. Either lawmakers read the material in the presence of an executive branch official who then retrieves it when they’re done, or they view it in a secure room and leave it on the table when they depart. Given the restrictions they face, Democratic lawmakers seem incredulous that Biden’s office was so loose that classified material wound up in his Wilmington, Delaware, home and an old office in Washington, D.C.

“Ultimately, it’s a responsibility for all of us — if you’re a senator or president or anybody — to keep track of and make sure all your papers are in the right place,” Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., said. “And it’s got to be a partnership between the elected official and their staff. The blame can be spread with everybody, but ultimately it’s my job.”

Another irritant has been the White House’s slow-rolling disclosures that Biden’s lawyers have unearthed more and more batches of classified material.

“I hope all the places that could be searched have been searched and there is going to be no additional discovery of documents,” said Neil Eggleston, a former White House counsel under then-President Barack Obama. “Every time there’s an additional discovery of documents, it makes it harder for President Biden to take the position that this is all ordinary and a mistake in the packing up process, which I ultimately think it is.”

Whatever the validity of such criticisms, some Democrats insist the party needs to silence them now that the Republicans are running investigations and are in a position to do Biden harm.

“When they criticize the White House, I don’t know what kind of agenda they’re forwarding other than … it does help the MAGA right-wing extremist agenda,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and co-chair of Facts First. “It’s certainly not helping themselves.

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans have opened an oversight inquiry into Biden’s handling of the records. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to the Secret Service this week requesting any logs showing who might have visited Biden’s home and potentially seen the records found on the premises. (Both the White House and the Secret Service said they don’t keep such records for his personal residence.)

The documents are but one piece of far-flung investigations the GOP has undertaken. Comer’s committee is also looking into the paintings sold by Biden’s son Hunter. And he has sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking for any “suspicious activity reports” that banks may have produced in connection with Biden's family business dealings.

“We get that the White House and the administration are going to resist every single attempt” to turn over records, said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a member of the Oversight Committee. “But what I don’t think they’re going to be able to resist is subpoenas to come testify. I suspect you’re going to see that forthcoming very shortly — and very robustly — in a way that you’ve not seen Republicans do maybe in your lifetime.”

Anticipating that Republicans would win control of the House in the midterm elections, Democrats set up a multipronged effort to fend off the investigations that were inevitably coming. The White House counsel’s office now has a communications arm to quickly respond to Republican allegations of presidential wrongdoing. A flurry of outside groups, including Facts First, are up and running, amplifying the White House’s message and attacking the GOP lawmakers as extremists who are abusing their oversight powers.

Even if Democrats can’t stick to a consistent message, they can at least rest assured that Republicans are having the same difficulty. A more moderate wing of the GOP worries that an obsessive focus on Biden and his family will alienate voters and put the party’s slim majority at risk.

“I’ve been screaming from the rooftops about policy issues,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., a member of the Oversight Committee.

“Investigate the corruption, but also deliver on the substance: inflation, immigration and finding a middle ground" on abortion, she added. “If we don’t do that, we will lose the majority in two years. We will lose seats because of this.”