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Another classified doc search, a debt ceiling meeting and a new presidential campaign

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The FBI spent about 3 1/2 hours today at President Biden's vacation house in Delaware looking for classified documents that may have been improperly retained. Biden did not speak about that today. He did meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on the U.S. debt ceiling. And we also have some news about who may challenge Donald Trump to be the Republican Party's nominee for president next year. All in all, a busy day in and around Washington, so a couple of our correspondents are here to break it down for us, starting with NPR's Scott Detrow at the White House. Scott, tell me about what the FBI found in that search of the president's second home in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, let's start with what they did not find. And Biden's lawyer says agents did not find any more documents with classified markings. But Bob Bauer says the agents did take some materials and handwritten notes that appear to be from Biden's time as vice president. And that's interesting because today is the second time the FBI has taken handwritten notes. They did that about two weeks ago when they searched his Wilmington residence. But neither the White House nor Biden's personal lawyer have provided details about what exactly these handwritten notes are. I asked Ian Sams, the White House spokesman handling this topic, about this today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IAN SAMS: They believe that, you know, some of the materials that were seen and were taken, they appear to relate to his time as vice president. I think that, you know, they want to make sure that the Justice Department has access to the information that they need to sift through materials part of this ongoing investigation. And so, you know, I'm not going to characterize too much of the underlying contents.

DETROW: Sams also would not say how many physical documents were taken today; so still a lot of questions about the exact scope of this.

SHAPIRO: This is the third place now where the FBI has taken material from Biden. Is this becoming a drag on the presidency?

DETROW: I mean, definitely. Remember, they spent 13 hours searching the president's home a week and a half ago. Biden staffers found those initial documents at Biden's Penn Biden Center offices back in November. There were those additional documents at his home in Wilmington that Biden lawyers found. And throughout all of this, it's become a big part of the story. The White House has consistently withheld key details. Another one right now is that the White House still has not confirmed or denied, despite a lot of attempts from people like me, a CBS report from earlier this week that the FBI also searched the Penn Biden Center last year. The White House is becoming a bit more responsive on this. It's worth noting today was the first time that Ian Sams held an in-person press conference on all of this.

SHAPIRO: And President Biden, for his part, had a high-profile meeting with the Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, to talk about the debt ceiling. What came out of that?

DETROW: Yeah, the meeting took place behind closed doors, so we don't know too much. We do know this, that Republicans want to use this moment of lifting the debt ceiling to try and force spending cuts like what happened during the Obama administration. The White House has been trying to call their bluff and saying, you know, Republicans have at times talked about cutting very popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. Is that what they want to do? But McCarthy said to our colleague Deirdre Walsh that there are plenty of room for other cuts in other government programs.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: Think about - think about the budgets. It's all discretionary. There's trillions of dollars there. So there's a lot of places.

DETROW: There's likely a lot of time, especially in Washington thinking of how much time there is, before a deal is needed to be hit before the true deadline hits. But as of right now, neither side is budging.

SHAPIRO: All right. So that's the view at the White House. Let's pull the camera back a bit and bring in NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Danielle, any idea how this debt ceiling fight is likely to play with voters?

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Somewhat. I mean, one place we can look is 2011, when there was a major debt ceiling fight that led to the U.S.' credit rating being downgraded. Now, how that played out was that afterwards, people really blamed Congress more than President Obama, and they blame the GOP more than Democrats. So that is one potential data point we can look to as to how this might play out. However, if you were watching the campaign trail in 2022 or talking to voters, you know that candidates don't talk a lot about America's fiscal situation, reducing debt lately. And voters don't talk about it either. This isn't a topic that gets people fired up the way that inflation does or the way that a lot of social issues do. The one thing to think about is what will get them fired up, which is if we hit the debt ceiling or get close enough that it causes major economic problems - which this could - I mean, at that point, how polls might look is going to be far down on the list of priorities compared to things like recession, job loss, a plunging stock market, people's retirement accounts suddenly shrinking. Now, of course, there would be political repercussions to that. But issue one at that point would be righting the ship after a really unprecedented blow.

SHAPIRO: As you are looking ahead to possible future scenarios, let's talk about what the 2024 Republican presidential race might look like because now former President Donald Trump has a challenger. Former South Carolina Governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says she is officially going to announce her run for president in mid-February. How's she likely to fit in to the field?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, on the one hand, when you talk to voters - when I have talked to Republican voters about potential 2024 candidates, she's relatively well-liked. The voters that know her think she's smart, think that she is capable, think that she did a good job being President Trump's U.N. ambassador. But then again, that's if voters know her. She is most certainly not as well known, of course, as President Trump and not as well known as someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. She's just not as splashy as those candidates are.

One other thing to think about is that she has occupied an interesting middle ground for quite a while - Trump affiliated but not Trumpy in her political style. And the question is how long that can stick before she's attacked for flip-flopping on things. For example, after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, she harshly rebuked President Trump. And then a little bit later, she backpedaled and she said, well, the Republican Party needs Trump, and she started praising him again. Similarly, at one point, she said she wouldn't run if Trump ran for president. But now it appears that, well, yes, she will. So what we can say is that I'm certain that we in the media will be asking her about some of her position shifts and that her fellow candidates will push her on that as well.

SHAPIRO: Trump, of course, reshaped the party in his four years as president. He's now been running for a few months. Is he as dominant this time as he was the last two times?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, he's, of course, like I said, the best-known candidate. He has that solid base of loyalists, which he didn't have when he jumped in in 2015, right? But there are good reasons to question his dominance. For example, his latest fundraising report shows that he took in just shy of $10 million since his November announcement. That's a lot of money, but it's not. It's slower than other well-known candidates have done in the past. And one other thing is that early polling shows that he could have a strong challenge from someone like Ron DeSantis. Now, early polling isn't the most reliable, but what it shows is that Trump is vulnerable. What's interesting is once people like Nikki Haley and other people jump in, do they take votes from Trump or take support from each other or both?

SHAPIRO: And I want to end by returning to Scott Detrow at the White House, where President Biden still has not announced whether or not he's running for reelection. Briefly, what's the outlook there?

DETROW: Well - and he says he hasn't made a final decision either. Normally, for a first-term president, this would be a no-brainer. But remember, Biden is the oldest president ever. And when he first ran, he talked a lot about being a bridge to the next generation, things like that. I will note he's spending a lot of time certainly acting like he's running again, drawing attention to accomplishments so far. I was covering a fundraiser Biden did yesterday at a swanky Upper East Side apartment, and it stood out to me so many times that he talked about what Democrats need to run on next election and even seemed to talk about goals for a second term.

SHAPIRO: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow and Danielle Kurtzleben, thank you both.

DETROW: Sure thing.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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