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Week in politics: Classified documents put Biden in a tricky political situation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden, who'd called Donald Trump irresponsible when he saw photos of classified documents at the Trump residence in Mar-a-Lago, had some explaining to do when it was revealed that some other classified documents ended up at his own home, as well as his former office. Here's what the president said earlier this week.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I was briefed about this discovery and surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office. But I don't know what's in the documents. I've - my lawyers have not suggested I ask what documents they were. I've turned over the boxes. They've turned over the boxes to the archives.

SIMON: NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: How does the administration sell the argument that the Trump taking classified items with him when he leaves office is a scandal, but President Biden keeping classified documents off government property is just an oversight?

ELVING: Tough sell. That's the line they're taking. And it surely sounds like classic hypocrisy, doesn't it? So look. Maybe it's the only line they can take. And maybe in the end, it turns out even to be largely factual. There's still a lot we don't know. But we do know the first batch of these documents was discovered before the November elections and the second on December 20. So, yes, the National Archives was properly notified, and the material was returned, and the Department of Justice was called in. That's all right and proper. But it was not until CBS News broke the story this week that the matter became public and that we learned about the second batch of documents, all of which looks bad and is bad. So now there's a special counsel, a man who has served many Republican officeholders in his career. And we expect to learn more from him.

SIMON: Ron, you've covered many administrations. Is it possible that every vice president and president, perhaps innocently, if maybe thoughtlessly, leaves office with some classified documents that are inadvertently in their possession?

ELVING: Inadvertently - sure, that's possible. Has it been done for less than innocent reasons? Hard to deny that's likely, too. Not all classified documents are created equal. Many are of less serious nature. The difference is in how people who get caught react to being exposed. Do they own up to it? Do they give the stuff back? Do they continue to deny it, as former President Trump did? Or do they then defy orders to return it and fight it in court and insist it's all theirs, as the former president did? All of this diverts attention not only from Trump but from other stories in the news, such as George Santos, the freshman congressman with the imaginary resume.

SIMON: Treasury Secretary Yellen warns congressional leaders the U.S. is going to reach its borrowing limit by next Thursday. Far-right Republicans oppose raising the debt limit. What's going to happen?

ELVING: We may hit the limit this week, technically speaking, but as in the past, the Treasury can use various accounting methods to forestall an actual default on United States debt obligations until several months, maybe as long as June. In recent years, Republicans have used the debt limit as leverage whenever they've had partial control of Congress. The last time Republicans really took it to the brink in 2013, they were insisting on repealing Obamacare. Two years before that, they did it to try to force deficit reduction. Both times, President Obama resisted, and a negotiated deal eventually raised the limit. And we can expect another go-round over that same ground this spring.

SIMON: Consumer prices fell by a tenth of a percent - a small number, but significant?

ELVING: This may have been the biggest political story of the week in the long run. Inflation continues to ease. It's now down to 6.5%. Now, that's still high, still painful for many. But it's down from the peak, and it's headed in the right direction. And it may be enough for the Federal Reserve to slow down the rate hikes that's it been imposing to gain control over inflation. And if that should happen, that should ease fears of a recession later on this year.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.