Biden’s missteps on secret papers create a self-inflicted crisis
WASHINGTON — The latest discovery of classified material at Joe Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, highlights the long-term political and legal risk to the president from a rapidly unfolding investigation that could yield further damaging revelations.
Disclosure after disclosure this week about sensitive papers at Biden’s office and private residence embarrassed and undermined the president, his attorneys and spokespeople, who have argued that they’re handling it by the book. While they’ve claimed they took appropriate precautions, promptly informed the government and arranged the return of materials, they say they must weigh disclosures to the public against legal considerations.
But the decision to wait more than two months, until after midterm elections, to disclose the initial discovery of classified documents has fanned criticism of the president’s commitment to transparency that’s only grown as Biden and his team stumbled through the subsequent week.
Statements by the president, his lawyers, and his spokespeople that omitted key details — including information later revealed in news reports or subsequent statements — only intensified the impression that the White House has something to hide. And the steady stream of revelations knocked Republican dysfunction on Capitol Hill out of the headlines while also offering a lifeline to former President Donald Trump, who is under criminal investigation for his own handling of classified documents.
The president’s messaging difficulties are likely to replicate and grow as newly appointed special counsel Robert Hur begins investigating the circumstances that led to classified documents being found at Biden’s home and a former office. Republicans are certain to seize on any impropriety on the part of Biden or his aides, in an effort to embarrass the president and to shield Trump, who is being investigated for refusing to return a far greater number of classified documents to the government.
The White House’s best bet is that its cautious and conservative approach will ultimately be vindicated. The president’s attorneys say they will fully cooperate with the special counsel inquiry, and they expect Biden to be exonerated for what they describe as innocent mistakes that were appropriately handled.
But the risk is that the case spirals in unforeseen directions, or that additional revelations provide Republicans enough ammunition to sustain a consistent political attack. Special counsel investigations in the past — including the probe into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia — have often overtaken a presidency. In 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server — a controversy Democrats now mock with the phrase “but her emails” — may have cost her the presidency.
The coming months will see the president and his aides inevitably facing tough questions as new information about the documents and their handling are revealed. Political pressure to provide a more fulsome explanation will increase, even as Biden’s attorneys resist disclosing details that could complicate the special counsel’s probe.
Key for the White House will be avoiding a performance like this week, when the president’s lawyers and spokespeople appeared to violate the cardinal rule of crisis communications: to own up to the full scope of a problem as quickly as possible.
Republican lawmakers have already seized on the first questionable decision by Biden’s attorneys: to not disclose the existence of the first batch of classified materials closer to the time they were discovered in November, just before the midterm elections.
Biden and the White House only acknowledged the documents found at the Penn Biden Center for Global Diplomacy and Engagement in Washington this week, after their existence was reported by CBS News. But the president and his attorneys then made another fateful decision, opting not to publicly reveal that a second batch of classified materials had been discovered in December in the garage of his Wilmington home.
The existence of those documents – which had already been returned to the federal government – was reported on Wednesday by NBC News. Biden’s legal team remained silent until the following day, when they issued a statement acknowledging the garage papers as well as an additional classified document “consisting of one page” found “among stored materials in an adjacent room.”
The statement also said that the president’s lawyers had “completed” their search Wednesday evening of Biden’s homes in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasized to reporters that the search was over. “You should assume that it’s been completed,” she said at a briefing Thursday.
That was not the case.
In fact, because Biden’s personal attorneys lacked security clearances, they halted their review Wednesday when they discovered the classified page at Biden’s home in Wilmington. White House special counsel Richard Sauber – who has a security clearance – then traveled to Wilmington the following evening to transfer the document to Justice Department officials, he said in a statement on Saturday. In the process, he discovered five additional pages of classified materials.
“The Biden White House’s secrecy in this matter is alarming,” House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement on Saturday. “Equally alarming is the fact that Biden aides were combing through documents knowing there would be a special counsel appointed.”
The White House did not provide a response to questions about the apparent discrepancy between their statements. But Bob Bauer, the president’s private attorney, said that Biden’s team had sought to avoid publicly identifying specific witnesses, documents or events that could complicate the special counsel investigation.
“The president’s personal attorneys have attempted to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity,” Bauer said in a statement on Saturday. “These considerations require avoiding the public release of detail relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.”
— Jordan Fabian and Akayla Gardner contributed to this report.