Alleged Satellite Images Show Extent of Damage Done by US Airstrike in Syria Ordered by Biden



After a little over a month in office, the Democratic president gave his first order for military action targeting facilities in an Arab state where American troops have been illegally deployed for years and remain under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

Space technology company Maxar Technologies has released purported satellite images of the territory near the Syria-Iraq border that was bombed by US forces on the night between 25 and 26 February, demonstrating the extent of the damage done by the strike.

The two satellite shots, presumably made before and after the US airstrike on Syrian soil, show a small compound consisting of around 10 buildings destroyed almost entirely in the raid.

The Pentagon said that the airstrike, ordered by US President Joe Biden, targeted a facility used by Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid Al-Shuhada – two Iraqi militias that Washington accuses of being supported by Iran and of targeting US objects in Iraq. Yet it is still unclear if the facility indeed belonged to the two groups, whether any Syrians suffered from the airstrike, and how many Iraqi militants, if any, died as a result of the military action – the first by the Biden administration.

An anonymous US official told CNN that “up to a handful” militants were killed, while a UK-based NGO reported some 17 fighters’ deaths. The two militias reported only one death near the border between Syria and Iraq, but it’s not clear if this was related to the airstrike.  

US Retaliation for Bombing of Its Positions in Iraq

Kata’ib Hezbollah denied claims they were responsible for the recent bombing of US positions in Baghdad on 15 February, which resulted in the death of one contractor and injuries to several American citizens. The attack on the US facilities in the Iraqi capital became the official pretext for the 25 February strike on Syrian soil, with President Biden stating it was a message to Iran that it “can’t act with impunity”.

Iran did not comment on Washington’s allegations, but instead stressed the illegal nature of the US airstrike on Syria and US military deployments in the Arab state, which are not authorised by the UN Security Council.

“The Iranian Foreign Ministry strongly condemns the illegal and aggressive attack by US forces in eastern Syria, which is a violation of international law”, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

The Syrian government similarly condemned the US airstrike “in the strongest terms”. Damascus insisted that Washington’s “cowardly aggression” violated international law and the UN Charter as it targeted the territory of a sovereign state.

Moscow also strongly slammed the US’ strikes in Syria, calling the White House’s actions a violation of the Arab Republic’s sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in the aftermath of the attack that the Kremlin had received information from various sources that the US is planning to stay in Syria forever, “even to the point of destroying this country”.

Washington currently keeps a small military contingency in the country’s north-eastern part, which is controlled by the Kurds, under the pretext of protecting local oil fields from terrorist remnants. The US refuses to withdraw the troops despite Damascus repeatedly demanding this and despite not having legal grounds to have soldiers deployed in the sovereign state. At the same time, American servicemen are helping the Kurds to extract natural resources in the region, specifically the oil, claiming that all the proceeds from selling it go to the Kurdish fighters. Damascus and Moscow, however, have accused Washington of stealing the Arab Republic’s natural resources.



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Biden scores legislative win as House passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan


President Joe Biden scored his first legislative win as the House of Representatives passed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package early Saturday, though Democrats face challenges to their hopes of using the bill to raise the minimum wage.

Democrats who control the chamber passed the sweeping measure by a mostly party-line vote of 219 to 212 and sent it on to the Senate, where Democrats planned a legislative maneuver to allow them to pass it without the support of Republicans.

The American Rescue Plan would pay for vaccines and medical supplies and send a new round of emergency financial aid to households, small businesses and state and local governments. The bill’s big-ticket items include $1,400 direct payments to individuals, a $400-per-week federal unemployment benefit through Aug. 29, and help for those in difficulty paying rents and home mortgages during the pandemic.

In brief remarks on Saturday from the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Biden said he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to thank her for her support and urged the Senate to take up the bill quickly.

“I hope it will receive quick action. We have no time to waste,” Biden said, without taking questions. “The people of this country have suffered far too much for far too long.”

Democrats said the package was needed to fight a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work.

“The American people need to know that their government is there for them,” Pelosi said in a debate on the House floor.

Republicans, who have broadly backed previous COVID-19 spending, said much of the current package was not necessary, highlighting elements such as a subway near Pelosi’s San Francisco district. Only 9% of the total would go directly toward fighting the virus, they said.

“It just throws out money without accountability,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

Democrats pointed to a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing 68% of Americans supported the package, including 47% of Republicans, with just 37% of Republicans opposing it.

“This critical legislation has support from Americans across the country and the political spectrum, and yet Republicans in Congress are trying to stand in the way,” said Jamie Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The House vote amounted to a successful first test for Democrats, who hold a narrow 221-211 majority in the chamber. Progressives and moderates in the party who are often at odds will face tougher battles ahead on immigration and climate change initiatives that Biden wants to push.

The president has focused his first weeks in office on tackling the greatest U.S. public health crisis in a century, which has upended most aspects of American life.

Democrats aim to get the bill to him to sign into law before mid-March, when enhanced unemployment benefits and some other types of aid are due to expire.

The action now moves to the Senate, where Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris may have to cast a tie-breaking vote in a chamber where Republicans control 50 seats and Democrats and their allies control the other 50.

FATE OF MINIMUM WAGE HIKE UNCLEAR

Democrats will have to sort out how to handle a proposed minimum-wage increase, which may have to be stripped from the bill due to the complicated rules that govern the Senate.

The House-passed bill would raise the national hourly minimum wage for the first time since 2009, to $15 from $7.25. The increase is a top priority for progressive Democrats.

However, the Senate’s rules expert said on Thursday that the wage hike did not qualify for special treatment that allows the rest of the bill to be passed with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes needed to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber.

Pelosi predicted the relief bill will pass Congress with or without the increase, and said Democrats would not give up on the matter.

It is not clear whether the minimum-wage hike would have survived the Senate even if it were to be kept in the bill. At least two Senate Democrats oppose it, along with most Republicans.

Some senators are floating a smaller increase, to the range of $10 to $12 per hour, while Democrats are considering a penalty for large corporations that do not voluntarily pay a $15 wage, according to a Democratic aide.

Efforts to craft a bipartisan coronavirus aid bill fizzled early on, shortly after Biden was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, following a series of bipartisan bills enacted in 2020.



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Putin, Biden Should Aim for More Arms Curbs – Gorbachev


Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday urged Russian President Vladimir Putin and new U.S. President Joe Biden to push for deeper restrictions on nuclear weapons.

Tensions soared between the two nations under previous U.S. leader Donald Trump, fuelled by allegations of sweeping cyberattacks and a litany of other disagreements.

But soon after Biden took office, the two powers extended a pact that limits each side to 1,550 nuclear warheads, which Putin hailed as a positive development. 

Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency that the two leaders — who spoke by phone after Biden’s inauguration last month — should meet and discuss further arms curbs. 

“I believe that it is imperative that the presidents meet. Experience shows that it is necessary to meet and negotiate,” he said.

“It is clear that the main thing is to avoid nuclear war. Since such a problem must be avoided, it is impossible to solve it alone, it is necessary to meet. 

“If the desire to achieve disarmament and to strengthen security prevails, so much can be accomplished.”

Earlier this year, the 89-year-old urged the two sides to repair relations, saying that the current situation was “of great concern.”

He said that once the New START nuclear accord is extended “a more ambitious treaty” could be negotiated.

Under Trump, Washington withdrew from two major international accords — the Iran nuclear deal and the Open Skies treaty — and pulled out of a centrepiece arms control agreement with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

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Syria: After US airstrikes, Biden warns Iran of consequences for supporting militia groups | World News


American airstrikes in Syria show that Iran can expect consequences for supporting militia groups threatening US interests and personnel, Joe Biden has warned.

“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” the US president said when asked what message he intended to send with the airstrikes early on Friday morning on Syria‘s eastern border with Iraq.

Satellite images show a group of buildings before the airstrike and the obliteration of most of them after.

The Pentagon said the strikes by two Air Force F-15E aircraft using seven missiles destroyed nine buildings and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria used by Iran-backed militias.

Image:
The buildings before the airstrikes. Pic: 2021 Maxar Technologies

They added that the strikes were not intended to eradicate the groups using them for attacks inside Iraq but to show the US will act firmly while trying to avoid a widespread regional escalation.

US officials said the airstrikes, Mr Biden’s first military action as president, were legal and appropriate as they took out facilities housing valuable “capabilities” used by the militia groups to attack American and allied forces in Iraq.

Members of Congress were notified before the strikes but Mr Biden faced opposition from several leading Congress members in his own party who denounced the strikes.

Democrats said the airstrikes were not authorised by politicians but the Republicans were more supportive, with Senator Jim Inhofe, leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying the decision was “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives”.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.

She said they were to deter attacks in the coming weeks and as a result of recent attacks, including a rocket attack on 15 February in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said the strikes resulted in “casualties” but would not provide further details on how many and what was inside the buildings.

An Iraqi militia official with close links to Iran said one fighter was killed by the airstrikes and several others wounded.

This is the Syria/Iraq border area the US airstrikes targeted. Pic: ©2021 Maxar Technologies
Image:
This is the Syria/Iraq border area the US airstrikes targeted. Pic: 2021 Maxar Technologies

He said the strikes were against the Kataeb Hezbollah group, or Hezbollah Brigades, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group supported by Iran.

It is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and has fighters in Syria to fight against Islamic State (IS) and help Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the civil war.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group monitoring the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons being taken by trucks entering Syria from Iraq.

It said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of militias including Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.

Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed one of its fighters was killed and said it reserved the right to retaliate, without elaborating.

Syria condemned the airstrikes, calling them “a cowardly and systematic American aggression” and warned they will have consequences.

Donald Trump significantly reduced the number of US forces in Iraq to 2,500 and they no longer take part in combat missions with Iraqi forces against IS.

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Joe Biden travels to Texas amid recovery effort from deadly winter storm


President Joe Biden heard firsthand from Texans impacted by this month”s extreme winter weather on Friday and pledged to stick with them “for the long haul” as he made his first trip to a major disaster area since he took office.

Biden was briefed by emergency officials and thanked workers for doing “God’s work”. He promised the federal government will be there for Texans as they try to recover, not just from the historic storm but also the public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When a crisis hits our states, like the one that hit Texas, it’s not a Republican or Democrat that’s hurting,” Biden said. “It’s our fellow Americans that are hurting and it’s our job to help everyone in need”.

With tens of thousands of Houston area residents without safe water, local officials told Biden that many are still struggling. While he was briefed, first lady Jill Biden joined an assembly line of volunteers packing boxes of quick oats, juice, and other food at the Houston Food Bank, where he arrived later.

The president’s first stop was the Harris County Emergency Operations Center for a briefing from acting FEMA Administrator Bob Fenton and state and local emergency management officials.

More than a million still boiling water

Texas was hit particularly hard by the St Valentine’s weekend storm that battered multiple states. Unusually frigid conditions led to widespread power outages and frozen pipes that burst and flooded homes. Millions of residents lost heat and running water.

At least 40 people in Texas died as a result of the storm and, although the weather has returned to more normal temperatures, more than 1 million residents are still under orders to boil water before drinking it.

“The president has made very clear to us that in crises like this, it is our duty to organise prompt and competent federal support to American citizens, and we have to ensure that bureaucracy and politics do not stand in the way,” said Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall, who accompanied Biden to Houston.

Biden was joined for much of his visit by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator John Cornyn, both Republicans, four Democratic Houston-area members of Congress and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The president also stopped by a mass coronavirus vaccination centre at NRG Stadium that is run by the federal government. Biden commemorated the 50 millionth COVID-19 vaccination since he took office on Thursday, halfway toward his goal of 100 million shots by his 100th day in office. That celebration followed a moment of silence to mark the passage earlier this week of 500,000 US deaths blamed on the disease.

Democrat Biden suggested that he and Republicans Abbott and Cornyn could find common cause in getting Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“We disagree on plenty of things,” Biden said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are plenty of things we can work on together. And one of them is represented right here today, the effort to speed up vaccinations”.

Texas’ other US senator, Ted Cruz, an ally of former President Donald Trump and one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who had objected to Congress certifying Biden’s victory, was in Florida Friday addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Cruz, who has been criticised for taking his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of Texans shivered in unheated homes, later said the trip was a mistake, but he made light of the controversy on Friday. “Orlando is awesome,” he said to laughs and hoots. “It’s not as nice as Cancun. But it’s nice.”

At the peak of the storm, more than 1.4 million residents were without power and 3.5 million were under boil-water notices in Houston’s Harris County, the nation’s third-largest county.

Debate over Texas’ energy supply

The post-storm debate in Texas has centred on the state maintaining its own electrical grid and its lack of better storm preparation, including weather-proofing key infrastructure. Some state officials initially blamed the blackouts on renewable energy even though Texas relies heavily on oil and gas.

In Washington DC, Biden’s climate advisor said the deadly winter storm was a “wake-up call” for the United States to build energy systems that can withstand extreme weather linked to climate change.

“We need systems of energy that are reliable and resilient,” Gina McCarthy said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The White House said Biden’s purpose in visiting was to support, not scold.

Biden was bent on asking Texans “what do you need, how can I help you more,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “And what can we get more for you from the federal government”.

Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas and asked federal agencies to identify additional resources to aid the recovery. The FEMA has sent emergency generators, bottled water, ready-to-eat meals, and blankets.

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said in an interview that he didn’t know what more the federal government could do to help because the failures were at the state level. But Henry, a Republican who is the highest county official in the suburban Houston county, said that if Biden “thinks it’s important to visit, then come on down”.

Biden wanted to make the trip last week, but said at the time that he held back because he didn’t want his presence and entourage to detract from the recovery effort.

Houston also was the destination for Trump’s first presidential visit to a disaster area in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding that August.

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Biden cuts Russia off when speaking about Crimea


US President Joe Biden spoke about the territorial affiliation of the Crimean Peninsula.

According to the White House, Biden published a statement in connection with the “anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.”


“On this somber anniversary, we reaffirm a simple truth: Crimea is Ukraine,” the statement published on the official website of the White House reads.


According to the US president, Russia violated international law, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbor seven years ago. Biden pointed out that Washington “does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula.” “We will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts,” the statement continues.

The United States will continue working to hold Russia accountable “for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine.” He also stressed that Washington supports everyone who strives for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future for their country.

Earlier it became known that Biden would decide on how to build relations with Russia in the future after receiving the assessment from American intelligence of a number of steps that Moscow had taken during the recent years.

It was also reported that Russia had sent requests to the Biden administration to arrange first contacts in a hope for “pragmatic cooperation.”

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Past Biden, Psaki tweets criticizing Trump slammed after new Syria airstrikes


Past Twitter messages from President Biden and one of his top aides — both criticizing former President Trump — weren’t appearing to age well Thursday after Biden ordered airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia stronghold in Syria.

In 2017, Jen Psaki, now White House press secretary, questioned what the Trump administration’s “legal authority for strikes” was in Syria following a Trump-ordered military action.

“Assad is a brutal dictator,” she tweeted, “But Syria is a sovereign country.”

When Psaki’s nearly four-year-old tweet resurfaced, many Twitter users appreciated the irony.

US LAUNCHES AIRSTRIKE AGAINST IRANIAN-BACKED FORCES IN SYRIA 

“Hey girl! guessing you circled back to this one, huh?” one user wrote.

“Great tweet. I look forward to you condemning @JoeBiden’s illegal strikes in your press conference tomorrow,” another person commented.

Even progressive U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., retweeted Psaki’s old post, writing sarcastically “Great question.” 

In April 2017, the Trump administration launched airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack the Assad regime carried out against its own people.

RAND PAUL: LOTS OF ‘HYPOCRISY’ BY BIDEN ADMINISTRATION ON IMMIGRATION, MIGRANT FACILITIES 

In October 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden called then-President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Northern Syria “erratic” and “impulsive.”

“The events of the past week … have had devastating clarity of just how dangerous this president is,” Biden said during a speech in Iowa about Trump’s decision, which critics saw as “abandoning” Kurdish allies in the region. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki and President Biden both criticized actions in Syria that were taken by former President Donald Trump.

In Thursday’s attack, the Biden administration targeted Iraqi border-based Shia militia groups, Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al Shuhada, which are suspected of having received funding and military support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

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A senior official said the strike was a “shot across the bow” and a defensive strategy, intended to deter Iran and its militia from launching rockets at U.S. forces in the region, like the recent attacks in Iraq.

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Biden readies his first major penalties on Russia



“Suffice it to say,” the official added, “we won’t stand by idly in the face of these human rights abuses.”

Navalny’s poisoning by Russian security forces last August and his recent jailing in Moscow has been deemed urgent enough to warrant a response, even if the broader review of U.S.-Russia policy — launched by the administration in January — is still ongoing, said the people familiar with the internal discussions.

Several Russia experts have said the U.S. should not wait to respond, especially after a Russian court paved the way last week for Navalny to be transferred to a penal colony.

“They’re right to do this broader review, but on Navalny they should take action sooner,” said Daniel Fried, who served as assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department from 2005 to 2009.

“I don’t think we can stop [Russian President] Putin from sending Navalny to a penal colony,” said Fried. “But by acting quickly now, at least it’s in Putin’s calculation that the U.S. is willing to act.”

Navalny, 44, was poisoned last August with the nerve agent Novichok, a lethal substance considered a banned chemical weapon by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Kremlin denied involvement, but the State Department publicly attributed the attack to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in December. After months of treatment in Germany, Navalny recovered and flew home to Moscow, where he was promptly arrested for breaking the terms of a probation agreement. He was sentenced to nearly three years in prison earlier this month, sparking massive protests across Russia and condemnation by the international community.

It’s not the first time Russian security forces attempted to assassinate Putin’s foes using Novichok. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer who served as a double agent for the British, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were poisoned with the substance in March 2018 in England. In December, Navalny tricked an FSB agent into detailing the plot against him, which involved planting Novichok in the opposition leader’s underwear.

While the new National Security Council’s broader Russia review has yet to be completed, the Biden administration is not starting from scratch on the Navalny issue — it inherited a comprehensive sanctions package from the previous administration, which was handed over during the transition process, two of the people familiar with the transition said.

The package proposed three types of sanctions: Magnitsky Act sanctions on the individuals who detained Navalny; sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act); and sanctions under Executive Order 13382 — which is “aimed at freezing the assets of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters,” according to the State Department. The Trump sanctions package also proposed revoking certain Russian officials’ visas and restricting the export of certain dual-use items to Russia that could be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

It is not clear why the sanctions proposal, which former officials said was ready to go by early January, stalled at the end of Trump’s term. But the former president was notoriously reluctant to penalize the Kremlin or confront Vladimir Putin directly, and the sanctions package would have required his approval.

However the new administration chooses to respond, it is unlikely to use the exact blueprint left by Trump’s national security team. The current National Security Council views that package as overly unilateral and not in line with Biden’s commitment to working more closely with U.S. partners on major foreign policy moves, two officials said.

Still, the U.S. has lagged behind allies on this issue. In response to Navalny’s poisoning last year, the European Union sanctioned six Russians and a state-run scientific institute in October, and this week announced its intention to sanction four additional senior Russian officials over Navalny’s treatment.

Ryan Tully, who served as Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the NSC in the final six months of the Trump administration, said U.S. sanctions will be a key next step — along with working to end Nord Stream 2, an export gas pipeline running from Russia to Europe across the Baltic Sea that Biden has so far resisted imposing further sanctions on. Germany in particular is bullish on Nord Stream 2, complicating multilateral action, especially as the U.S. tries to repair relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel following tense relations in the Trump era.

“Sanctioning Russia using the CBW Act, Magnitsky Act, and/or EO 13382, for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny is an important step in that it reinforces the global norm against chemical weapons use,” Tully said. “Ultimately, these tools won’t change Putin’s calculus or behavior however. Putting a stake in the heart of Nord Stream 2 could, and would, drain billions from Putin’s coffers.”

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LIVE UPDATES: Joe Biden claimed he was once arrested at the US Capitol


In a 2007 appearance on David Letterman, then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., claimed he was arrested at the U.S. Capitol when he was 21 years old.

Letterman asked Biden what it was like to walk into the U.S. Senate chamber after being elected at the age of 29. Biden responded that he had actually walked into the Senate chamber when he was 21 and got arrested.

“In those days, no guards stopping you everywhere. And they just got out of session. I walked in the back, all of the sudden I found myself in the chamber. I was stunned. I walked up, sat down in the presiding officer’s seat, guy grabbed by the shoulder, said: ‘you’re under arrest,’” Biden said.

FAST FACTS

    • It was unclear whether or the nation’s 46th president was indeed arrested at the age of 21.
    • Biden once claimed he was arrested while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in South Africa during the apartheid era. He later backtracked saying that by “arrested,” he meant he was “not able to move.”

“Literally nine years later, as I walked onto the Senate floor through the same door, that same guy, cop, said to me, ‘Senator, you remember me?’ I said, ‘geez, I don’t.’ He said, ‘I arrested you nine years ago…welcome back.’”

Biden was previously caught bragging about other arrests that turned out not to be true.

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