Biden gets new political headache with discovery of classified documents

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
President Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 5, 2023. From left, Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

The discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president is causing a political headache for the White House at a time when Biden appeared to be hitting his stride ahead of a 2024 campaign announcement.

The White House has downplayed the news that a small number of classified documents were found in an office Biden used between his vice presidency and presidential campaign, noting that the National Archives was quickly alerted and that it is cooperating with the Justice Department. 

The situation is markedly different from former President Trump, who kept hundreds of classified and top secret documents at his private residence after leaving the White House.

But that is unlikely to appease Republicans, who are eager to use their new House majority to elevate the issue and investigate the president, potentially weakening him ahead of 2024.

“The timing couldn’t be worse given that House Republicans are just getting ready to ramp up their oversight,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“To be clear, there’s a hell of a difference between what we’re dealing with here and what happened with the Trump White House,” Manley added. “But that doesn’t mean the White House isn’t going to have to answer some questions.”

The White House confirmed Monday that lawyers for Biden had discovered documents from his time as vice president while they were cleaning out an office in Washington, D.C., that he’d used while working with the University of Pennsylvania from 2017-2019.

The documents were discovered on Nov. 2, 2022, six days before the midterm elections, though the White House did not notify the public until news reports revealed their existence on Monday. 

CNN reported Tuesday that among the materials found in November were 10 classified documents mixed in with other personal items, like information about Biden’s son’s funeral. The classified documents included intelligence memos and briefing materials that related to Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, CNN reported.

“People know I take classified documents and classified information seriously,” Biden told reporters in Mexico City on Tuesday.

The building that housed office space of President Joe Biden’s former institute, the Penn Biden Center, is seen at the corner of Constitution and Louisiana Avenue NW, in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

The president said his team of lawyers quickly notified the National Archives upon making the discovery. He added that he was surprised to learn there had been government records in that office, and he did not ask about their contents.

The White House and their allies have emphasized the differences between the discovery of Biden’s old documents and the case involving former President Trump. 

Most notably, Trump had significantly more classified and documents at his private residence, and Biden’s team immediately notified the National Archives about the discovery while Trump’s team was uncooperative to the point that the FBI had to search his property in August.

But the furor over Trump’s handling of sensitive government files has given Republicans an opening to accuse Biden and Democrats of a double standard and use their newfound powers in the House majority to go after the president.

Incoming House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday wrote to the Director of National Intelligence asking for a damage assessment related to the documents found at Biden’s old office. Turner noted that the discovery of classified information “would put President Biden in potential violation of laws protecting national security, including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act.”

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, asked in a floor speech on Tuesday why Biden has “never faced a raid,” a nod to how FBI agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for government files last summer.

Taylor Budowich, head of the Trump-aligned MAGA, Inc., called on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate Biden’s handling of classified documents just as one was appointed to oversee investigations into Trump’s conduct.

The controversy is bubbling up at a time when Biden’s approval ratings were on the rise, inflation seemed to be cooling and Republicans in the House were coming off a week of dysfunction as they struggled to elect a Speaker.

The letters from House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) to Debra Steidel Wall, archivist of the United States, and White House Counsel Stuart Delery are photographed Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Democrats acknowledged that Republicans were likely to seize on the newly discovered Biden documents to shift the focus of the news cycle. And talk of looking further into Biden’s handling of classified materials coincides with plans for GOP-led House panels to use investigative powers to highlight immigration, the Afghanistan withdrawal and Biden’s family business to try and inflict political damage before a possible 2024 campaign.

The best response, some strategists argued, is for the White House to play up the contrast between its handling of the matter — quickly alerting the National Archives and working with the Justice Department — with how Trump and his team seemed to mislead investigators and withhold documents.

“There’s a Trump and Republican narrative that [they] are being treated unfairly. And they are looking for anything that feeds into that narrative,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.

“The differences between these two cases are striking,” Kessler added.

Tags Biden Biden documents Biden documents Donald Trump Donald Trump James Comer Joe Biden Joe Biden MAGA Inc Mike Turner

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