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Legal, political strategy in letting FBI search Biden’s home

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WASHINGTON –

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision allowing the FBI to search his home in Delaware last week is laying him open to fresh negative attention and embarrassment following the earlier discoveries of classified documents at that home and a former office. But it’s a legal and political calculation that aides hope will pay off in the long run as he prepares to seek reelection.

The remarkable, nearly 13-hour search by FBI agents of the sitting president’s Wilmington home is the latest political black eye for Biden, who promised to restore propriety to the office after the tumultuous tenure of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

But with his actions, Biden is doing more than simply complying with federal investigators assigned to look into the discovery of the records. The president is aiming to show that, unlike Trump, he never intended to retain classified materials — a key distinction that experts say diminishes the risks of criminal liability.

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White House spokesman Ian Sams said Monday that Biden’s own attorneys invited the FBI to conduct the search. “This was a voluntary proactive offer by the president’s personal lawyers to DOJ to have access to the home,” he said, adding that it reflected “how seriously” Biden is taking the issue.

Mary McCord, a former senior U.S. Justice Department national security official, said, “If I was a lawyer and I represented the president of the United States and I wanted to show, ‘I am being fully cooperative, and I do care to be projecting transparency to the American public, and I do take this seriously,’ I think this is the advice I would give as well.”

That’s not to say she approves of his handling of the documents.

“I think it’s wrong that he had those documents there,” she said. “It shows lapses at the end of the administration,” when Biden was completing his time as vice president under Barack Obama.

Biden’s personal attorneys first discovered classified materials on Nov. 2, a week before the midterm elections, as they were clearing out an office Biden had used at the Penn Biden Center in Washington. Since that initial discovery, Biden’s team has adopted an accommodating approach to the investigation, even if they haven’t been completely transparent in public.

The White House has cited the ” risk” of sharing information “that’s not complete” potentially interfering with the probe to justify not revealing more information to the public.

They didn’t acknowledge the first discovery before the elections, though they swiftly notified the National Archives, returned the documents the day after they were found and coordinated subsequent searches and discoveries with the Department of Justice.

They also are not standing in the way of interviews of staff, including Kathy Chung, Biden’s executive assistant when he was vice president, who helped oversee the packing of boxes that were taken to the Penn Biden Center.

She feels some responsibility but had “absolutely” no knowledge of classified documents being packed, according to a person familiar with her thinking. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Biden himself has said he was surprised the documents were in his possession. Last Thursday, frustrated at all the focus, he told reporters: “There’s no there there.”

It all fits a theme: Biden and his aides maintain the document mishandling was not intentional. As far as Biden’s possible legal exposure goes, the question of intention is critical: Federal law does not allow anyone to store classified documents in an unauthorized location, but it’s only a prosecutable crime when someone is found to have “knowingly” removed the documents from a proper place.

Still, welcoming the FBI search could backfire depending on what else might be found. Agents last week took possession of an additional round of items with classified markings, and some of Biden’s handwritten notes and materials from his tenure as vice president and senator.

That’s in addition to the documents already turned in by Biden’s lawyers. Agents could also choose to search the Penn Biden Center and Biden’s other home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, as the probe continues. Sams declined to say whether Biden would sign off on additional searches, referring the matter to the DOJ — which has asked the White House not to publicize searches in advance.

Criticism of Biden’s handling of the matter has come from Democrats as well as Republicans. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the president should be “embarrassed by the situation.”

“I think he should have a lot of regrets,” added Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Even Biden’s own attorneys have called it a “mistake.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to use their new-found powers in the House, where they regained the majority this month, to investigate Biden’s handling of the documents and hope to capitalize on the investigation, even as they have said investigating the documents retained by Trump is not a priority.

“It is troubling that classified documents have been improperly stored at the home of President Biden for at least six years, raising questions about who may have reviewed or had access to classified information,” House Oversight Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., wrote in asking for visitor logs to Biden’s residence.

Responding to Comer’s requests for copies of the documents taken from Biden’s home, the White House counsel’s office on Monday said it no longer had possession of them. It said the White House would “accommodate legitimate oversight interests,” while also “respecting the separation of powers and the constitutional and statutory obligations of the executive branch generally and the White House in particular.”

“This is not `legitimate’ transparency from President Biden who once claimed he’d have the most transparent administration in history,” said Oversight Committee spokesperson Jessica Collins, who added that the panels Republicans would use “all possible tools” to get answers.

Trump and some of his supporters have been outspoken, claiming Biden is guilty of worse mishandling of classified documents than the Democrats sanctimoniously accuse Trump of being. The former president is sure to press that accusation vigorously as he campaigns to regain the White House.

The investigation of Trump also centers on classified documents that ended up at a home. In that case, though, the Justice Department issued a subpoena for the return of documents that Trump had refused to give back, then obtained a warrant and seized more than 100 documents during a dramatic August search of his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago. Federal agents are investigating potential violations of three federal laws, including one that governs gathering, transmitting or losing defense information under the Espionage Act.

In 2016, when the FBI recommended against criminal charges for Hillary Clinton over classified emails she sent and received via a private server when she was secretary of state, then-FBI Director James Comey said the Justice Department –in choosing which cases to bring over the past century — has looked for evidence of criminal intent, indications of disloyalty to the U.S., retention of vast quantities of classified documents or any effort to obstruct justice.

It’s not clear whether agents in the Biden investigation have progressed beyond the question of intent. The White House has not answered key questions, including how classified information from his time as vice president could have ended up inside his Delaware home. But Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to head the probe given the sensitive politics around it.

Garland declared on Monday, in answer to a question: “We do not have different rules for Democrats or Republicans. … We apply the facts under the law in each case in a neutral and nonpartisan manner. That is what we always do and that is what we are doing in the matters you are referring to.”

One key test of the limits of Biden’s strategy revolves around the question of whether the president will agree to an interview with federal investigators if he is asked. White House officials thus far have refused to say whether or under what terms he would do so.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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