At the invitation of Joe Biden’s legal team, federal investigators carried out an extraordinary 13-hour search of the president’s Delaware residence, scouring every room of the house from the bedrooms to the bathrooms.
It was a remarkable gesture meant to demonstrate the president’s full cooperation with the investigation. But it also led to the discovery of half a dozen items with classified markings, the latest in a series of findings that have put Biden and his presidency on the defensive as he prepares to seek a second term.
The disclosures have already led the justice department to appoint a special counsel to investigate Biden’s retention of classified documents. They have also emboldened a hostile Republican House majority eager to wield its newly acquired subpoena power, and alarmed some Democrats who just weeks ago were praising Biden’s political strength following their unexpectedly strong midterm performance.
Biden should be “embarrassed by the situation”, the Illinois senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said during a Sunday appearance on CNN.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, also weighed in on CBS’s Face the Nation, asking: “How many documents are we talking about? Dozens? A handful or hundreds? How serious are they? Why were they taken? Did anyone have access to them? And then, is the president being cooperative?”
Biden and his team have repeatedly stated that they cooperating fully with authorities, a strategy the White House said was underscored by the unprecedented offer to search a sitting president’s home.
“This was a voluntary, proactive offer by the president’s personal lawyers to DoJ to have access to the home,” a White House spokesman, Ian Sams, told reporters on Monday, adding that it demonstrated “how seriously the president is taking this issue”.
But the slow trickle of revelations, and the White House’s piecemeal public disclosures, have only further intensified the political furor surrounding the matter. Dogged by questions at every appearance, Biden has occasionally flashed impatience. “I think you’re going to find there’s nothing there,” he told reporters, adding: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”
The remark drew a rebuke from Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who is not shy about criticizing the White House. In a separate interview, Manchin took issue with Biden’s statement that he has “no regrets” about the decision not to inform the public about the initial discovery of documents in November. “I think he should have a lot of regrets,” the senator said.
Despite their dismay, the Democrats also defended the president’s cooperative approach and contrasted it with Donald Trump, who is also facing a special counsel for his mishandling of government documents.
There are major differences between the two cases. For months, Trump resisted efforts by the government to retrieve hundreds of records marked classified, even after being served a subpoena, which ultimately led a judge to issue a search warrant of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
“It is outrageous that either occurred,” Durbin said on CNN. “But the reaction by the former president and the current president could not be in sharper contrast.”
The trouble for Biden began on 2 November, days before the midterm elections, when the president’s personal lawyers, who were packing up his private office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, discovered documents with classified markings from his time as vice-president. The lawyers immediately notified the National Archives, which alerted the justice department.
Yet the public did not learn of the findings until 9 January, when CBS News first reported on the discovery of the documents at the Penn Biden Center. The following day, at a press conference in Mexico City, Biden said he took the protection of classified information seriously and was “surprised” to learn that any sensitive materials had been found at his Washington office.
At this point, the archives had already retrieved a second batch of documents discovered in the garage at Biden’s Wilmington home in late December, but neither Biden nor his team mentioned the additional findings until their existence was revealed by NBC News a day later. Biden’s team indicated that the search had concluded only to later disclose new findings. And even after his lawyers declared the search complete, additional secret documents have been recovered.
Bob Bauer, Biden’s top personal lawyer, said the president’s legal team would endeavor to balance “the importance of public transparency” with the “norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity”.
“Regular ongoing public disclosures also pose the risk that, as further information develops, answers provided on this periodic basis may be incomplete,” he wrote in a statement.
Lanny Davis, a prominent Washington lawyer who served as special counsel to former president Bill Clinton as he faced investigations from independent counsel Ken Starr, said there was often an “inherent disconnect” between a president’s lawyers and the communications staff over what to keep secret and what to make public.
Davis, whose 1999 White House memoir, Truth to Tell, was aptly subtitled: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself, said he understood the Biden team’s initial instinct not to disclose the revelations publicly out of deference to the justice department. But he wondered, “with the wisdom of hindsight” and the caveat that he is not privy to internal deliberations, why Biden’s team hadn’t been more forthcoming, especially with the findings it knew would be made public.
Aides and allies of the president argue that Americans are more concerned with the president’s record, including a string of legislative accomplishments that Biden will tout during visits to Maryland and New York next week.
Yet Biden’s approval ratings have dipped in recent weeks, hovering near the lowest levels of his presidency, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. A new ABC News/Ipsos survey found that strong majorities of Americans disapproved of the way Biden and Trump handled classified materials. Some draw a distinction between the cases, with 43% of Americans saying Trump’s behavior was “a more serious concern” compared with 20% who said Biden’s was more serious.
Nevertheless, the controversy arrives at a delicate time for the 80-year-old president. Biden initially ran for the White House promising to restore competency and calm to the office after four years of norm-breaking tumult under Trump, who is running again for president in 2024.
Despite lingering concerns about his age and new concerns that the controversy will tarnish his political standing, Democrats appear to have largely accepted that Biden will be their standard-bearer in 2024.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that Biden’s situation plays to Trump’s benefit. It muddles the case against the former president, at least in the court of public opinion, making it harder for Democrats to use it against him.
In a wrinkle that may further compound public perceptions of how public officials handle government secrets, it was revealed on Tuesday that aides to Mike Pence, the former vice-president viewed as a potential 2024 contender, discovered about a dozen classified-marked documents stored in boxes at his Indiana home.
The development is likely to revive a longstanding debate over the vast volumes of information that the government deems classified. Transparency advocates, lawmakers of both parties, and former federal officials, including one in charge of administering it, have all denounced the overly broad nature of a classification system that they say incentivizes the government to keep documents secret at the expense of accountability.
Nevertheless, the Biden revelations have delighted House Republicans, eager to distract from their own chaotic start. They are charging ahead with an investigation into Biden’s handling of sensitive materials they say may have compromised national security – even as they downplay the matter as it relates to Trump, and now Pence.
Congressman James Comer, the new Republican chair of the House oversight and accountability committee, who immediately launched an investigation into the Biden documents after accusing the president of “potentially violating the law”, praised Pence’s handling of the situation.
“Pence’s transparency stands in stark contrast to Biden White House staff who continue to withhold information from Congress and the American people,” he said in a statement.
And despite the fact that three top contenders for president are now entangled in controversies, Republicans have shown no signs of recalibrating.
On Wednesday, Elise Stefanik, the House Republican conference chair, also brushed aside the need for further scrutiny of Pence, who she commended for “following the process”. She claimed Biden’s case, however, posed a “longstanding national security threat” that would “absolutely” be a focus of their oversight agenda going forward.