As House Republicans officially take over Congress and clamor to investigate the Biden administration, a new line of attack fell squarely into their laps: classified documents recovered from one of President Joe Biden’s private offices when he served as vice president.
“President Biden has been very critical of President Trump mistakenly taking classified documents to the residence or wherever and now it seems he may have done the same,” House Oversight Chairman James Comer, a key lawmaker in leading investigations in the 118th Congress, said Tuesday. “How ironic.”
The news of Biden’s possession of classified documents and the prompt Republican response that followed came as Congress voted Tuesday to establish a panel engineered to investigate the “weaponization” of the federal government, adding to an already growing list of oversight priorities House Republicans have laid out now that they have committee control and subpoena power. The party-line vote was 221-211.
Republicans have vowed to investigate a broad swath of issues ranging from Hunter Biden’s business dealings to the border to the origins of Covid-19 to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many of the probes could serve as a launching point to relitigate Democratic-led investigations into former President Donald Trump, Russia and even seek to portray law enforcement agencies and Twitter as political.
With a broad mandate to investigate all ongoing criminal probes of the Executive Branch and a whopping budget, the select subcommittee is bound to set up a showdown with the Biden administration and law enforcement agencies.
“A lot of people are interested,” incoming Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, told CNN, who will be overseeing the select subcommittee. “I’ve had lots of people talk to me, so that’s good.”
The lawmakers appointed to the panel, which will be selected in the coming days, will determine the direction of the subcommittee, and how political these investigations become. The right-wing lawmakers involved in the painstaking negotiations last week maintain that securing appointments to this subcommittee were not discussed.
“We didn’t get that far to fill in names or things like that. It was just to make sure you set the committee up so it can function,” GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, a key holdout to back Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker, told CNN.
GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry, a key GOP leadership ally and committee chairman told CNN that the subcommittee “will be a cross section of our conference.”
In what represented an opening salvo by Republican-led congressional investigations into Biden’s handling of classified material, Comer on Tueday swiftly sent letters to the National Archives, which his panel has jurisdiction over, and the White House Counsel’s Office. Among the requests made in the letters were: All documents retrieved from Biden’s personal office where the classified documents were found; a list of people who had access to that office; all documents and communications between the White House, Department of Justice and National Archives regarding the documents that were retrieved; and all documents and communications related to the handling of classified material by Biden’s personal lawyers, including their security clearance statuses.
The Kentucky Republican asked that documents and other information be turned over no later than January 24 and that NARA General Counsel Gary Stern and NARA Director of Congressional Affairs John Hamilton be made available for transcribed interviews with committee staff no later than January 17.
The House also voted Tuesday to establish a select committee to investigate strategic competition between the US and China.
Republicans launch subcommittee
The select subcommittee was the result of key concessions made by McCarthy in order to secure the gavel. In addition to investigating all ongoing criminal probes, it would also “be authorized to receive information available to the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,” giving it access to the most highly classified information in Congress, according to the proposal.
“Today we are putting the ‘Deep State’ on notice,” said GOP Rep. Dan Bishop, who was an initial holdout on McCarthy for speaker, said on the House floor about the resolution that forms the subcommittee. “We’re coming for you on behalf of everyday Americans.”
The panel will be housed under the House Judiciary Committee, which Jordan has signaled will target the FBI and Justice Department, among other executive branch agencies.
“We will have expansive authority to go after the weaponization of government across jurisdictions but in consultation and coordination with those other jurisdictions,” GOP Rep. Chip Roy, an early holdout against McCarthy’s bid for speaker, told CNN.
GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a member of the steering committee, said he wants to investigate the FBI and leadership at DOJ.
“We want to make this about these really highly politicized things,” Armstrong said this week, adding, “there are so many people across this country that think the leadership at DOJ has been politicized.”
Rep. Byron Donalds, who was nominated for House speaker by hard-right members of the Republican party before McCarthy ultimately secured enough votes, said this week he thinks the White House’s interactions with Twitter should be the first issue investigated by the select committee.
“Obviously, you know, paying attention to what is being unleashed by Twitter it seems like every other week now, that is number one,” Donalds told reporters.
“When you have one of the, I believe it’s one of the staffers out of the White House basically emailing Twitter to remove Twitter accounts, don’t you think that’s weaponization of the federal government against the American people? I sure think so,” he added.
Democrats have deep concerns about the wide mandate and expansive authority of the new Republican-created select subcommittee, but they plan to fully participate in the panel and Democratic lawmakers are already expressing interest in serving, senior Democratic congressional aides tell CNN. The aides say House Democrats do not plan to repeat McCarthy’s oft-criticized strategy of boycotting a committee they disagree with, as the then-House minority leader did with the January 6 select committee following a dispute with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over which Republicans would serve on it.
The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, told CNN, “We’ll use our position on that special subcommittee to point out the absurdity and harm of what they’re doing.”
“It’s based on mythology. The federal government has not been weaponized against anybody. And the resolution gives the special committee powers to go after any individual, to find out any individual’s information and that’s a gross assault on everybody in the country,” he added.
Democrats believe that the changes to the subcommittee’s mandate that McCarthy negotiated with GOP hardliners on his path to becoming speaker, namely its ability to scrutinize ongoing criminal investigations, are evidence that Republicans will try to use the committee to defend Trump and attack his investigators – the same playbook Trump’s allies in Congress used with special counsel Robert Mueller.
“The notion that the subcommittee investigating the weaponization of the federal government is going to go try to weaponize the federal justice system is not lost on its critics,” one of the aides said of the change. “They have no interest in getting politics out of the justice system – they want to put their thumb on the scale for certain defendants.”
The aides also expressed alarm that the subcommittee, whose members do not have to serve on the House Judiciary Committee, will be given access to the same information as the House Intelligence Committee, a panel of members chosen by the speaker and House minority leader that has access to highly sensitive US intelligence. That provision was also added during negotiations with the GOP holdouts last week.
“Only some members trusted by the speaker should have access in the first place,” the Democratic aide said. “People will die if that information becomes public.”
Republicans and Democrats sparred on the House floor Tuesday over which members should be named to the select committee.
GOP Rep. Thomas Massie implored House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to appoint “serious Democrats” to the panel.
That prompted a sharp retort from Democrat Rep. James McGovern, who said Republicans should populate the committee with members “who did not ask for a pardon, who did not have their phones seized by the FBI.
Justice Department prepares for investigations
Justice Department officials long have anticipated the onslaught of oversight demands, some focused on allegations Republicans have made for months that the department and FBI have politicized investigations.
Officials have already spent time reviewing internal documents that could be subject to GOP subpoenas, people familiar with the matter say. For instance, sources say Justice Department officials are more likely to accommodate Republican requests for documents related to the Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo on threats against school board members and other public officials, an issue that became a flashpoint during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While some Republicans claim that the memo was intended to treat conservative parents like terrorists, Justice officials have stood by their rejection of that characterization. They say they only looked into threats, not parents expressing objections to school Covid and other teaching policies.
But other possible Republican demands are likely to meet greater resistance, notably for materials related to ongoing Trump-related criminal probes. Such GOP demands could trigger broader court fights over the separation of powers between Congress and the Executive Branch.
Decades of Justice Department policy limit sharing evidence gathered for investigations that are ongoing, in part to protect the rights of people who haven’t or may never be charged.
Early in the Biden administration, Justice officials shared internal Trump-era documents that normally would be shielded under executive privilege. But current and former officials say sharing those documents didn’t set new precedents.
Career Justice officials analyzed previous examples in which the Justice Department negotiated limited congressional access to material that may be part of ongoing criminal investigations.
“People thought carefully about that,” said one former Justice official involved in the discussions at the time. “There’s been longstanding negotiations and accommodation for Congress’s legitimate oversight requests. I don’t think it creates an open season for everything Congress demands.”
Standing committees target Biden administration
Despite the select committee’s broad mandate, House Republicans still plan to utilize control over standing committees to pursue various investigations into the Biden administration.
Comer, the House Oversight Committee chairman, told CNN that his panel will begin with a hearing on Covid spending as early as February.
“There hasn’t been a single hearing pertaining to any of the funds and how they were spent. We have reports of massive fraud in the unemployment insurance programs in all 50 states. We have reports of massive fraud with the stimulus money and with the (Paycheck Protection Program) loan funds,” he said in a recent CNN interview.
“So we just want to start examining that and trying to see if there were any mistakes that were made, and we were pretty confident there were and if we can hold people accountable for potential wrongdoing,” he added.
Comer’s panel, which he says has the bandwidth to be able to conduct between 40 and 50 meaningful investigations, will also be tasked with matters related to Biden’s son, Hunter. He told CNN his committee “will start immediately” bringing in people to do transcribed interviews, at first voluntarily, and that “right now” there are no plans to bring in the president himself. The panel will also quickly begin requesting bank records and start building out their investigation, requests Republicans will have to restart as mandated by the Biden administration, a move Comer called “a cheap shot.”
“We’re going to request information one way or another,” he added.
That work will remain separate from the select committee’s efforts, according to Jordan.
“Mr. Comer’s been clear what he wants to do over there, relative to the coronavirus, relative to the Hunter Biden stuff. I think that’ll be focused in Chairman Comer’s committee. We’re going to focus on all the other issues,” he said.
Comer said he and Jordan “communicate every day” and there will be “some overlap” in their respective investigations, telling CNN that they each will likely sit in on some of the other’s interviews.
The House Judiciary Committee under Jordan will also take up several investigations in its own right.
Border issues would likely be the focus of the first Judiciary Committee hearing, but it hasn’t been fully decided, according to Jordan.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something to do with the border,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.