Democrats worry Biden controversy will be Clinton emails repeat
Democrats are increasingly worried that the controversy surrounding the classified documents found at President Biden’s Wilmington, Del., home and at his former office will loom large over his expected reelection campaign.
While Democrats say they remain confident that Biden can overcome the problem, they say the disclosure of numerous batches of classified documents complicates matters for the president ahead of his campaign launch.
Privately, they wonder how tough it will be for Biden to explain what happened and draw comparisons to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email controversy, in which the former secretary of State admitted to using a private email account while doing government business.
It also gives Republicans a gift by complicating Democratic attacks on former President Trump over the FBI’s search of his Florida residence, where classified documents were seized in August 2022.
“This is going to be a pretty big problem for the president,” said one Democratic strategist who asked that their name be withheld to speak candidly about the issue. “Republicans have always been good at drumming up scandal and even though the situation here with Biden is completely different than the situation involving Trump, they’re going to act like this is a huge deal.”
While Democrats are privately acknowledging the problem, publicly they have taken pains to argue that the situations of Trump and Biden are dramatically different.
“It’s apples and oranges,” said Rodell Mollineau, a veteran Democratic strategist. At the same time, he warned that Democrats “need to be thoroughly prepared for Republicans to turn this into the biggest scandal since Watergate.”
“This isn’t their silver bullet, but they’re going to try,” he said.
Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability launched an investigation this week into the documents marked classified in Biden’s possession.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) devoted much of its energy to the story this week in press releases and on social media, including file video of Biden backing his Corvette into his garage. “Here’s a shot of Joe Biden’s “locked” GARAGE where he was hiding classified documents,” read one post on Twitter from the RNC’s research account.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took to Twitter to jokingly connect it to Clinton’s ongoing problem in 2016: “Big story coming tomorrow: Hillary’s server was also in Joe’s garage.”
On Thursday and Friday, reporters pressed administration officials if the news would impact Biden’s decision to run for reelection.
Speaking to journalists at the White House press briefing on Friday, Keisha Lance Bottoms, a senior adviser to the president for public engagement, was asked if the discovery of the documents would have any “bearing on his decision to run again?”
“I’ll refer those questions to the president,” she replied. “He can speak for himself on that.”
Asked if the revelation of the documents would impact Biden’s decision to run again, White House Deputy Press secretary Andrew Bates replied, “It doesn’t.”
“The President is honoring his promise to respect the independence of the Department of Justice and divorce it from politics,” Bates said. “You’ve heard it from him directly, including after his agenda resulted in the best midterms for a Democratic President in 60 years, that he intends to run.
“With inflation falling, the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, more jobs back to America, and lowering drug costs, all in the last week alone– his focus is on delivering even more progress for American families. We also saw House Republicans’ vision: raising taxes on the middle class to cut them for the wealthy, worsening inflation, and national abortion ban.”
One aide on Biden’s 2020 campaign said if the disclosure of the documents wasn’t an issue, Republicans would be attacking the president on something else. But pursuing Biden on the documents issue is a losing one for them because of Trump’s baggage on the same topic.
The former Biden campaign aide said Republicans have difficulty answering why Trump had pages upon pages of documents and then resisted the FBI’s request that he turn them over. The aide also said that fighting an issue on who’s more law abiding is a no-win situation for Republicans as demonstrated in the midterms, pointing to defunding the FBI, defending Jan. 6 insurrectionists and fueling conspiracy theories about 2020.
Ultimately, the aide said voters will care more about issues including bringing down inflation.
Before the classified documents controversy, Biden and his aides were riding a string of good news.
They’d had a more-successful-than-expected midterm election season that kept the Senate in Democratic hands and strengthened Biden’s position ahead of a 2024 reelection race.
Republicans looked divided as they debated who should lead them in 2024 and whether their party needed to move on from Trump. Last week’s Speakership election in the House also underscored divides in the GOP.
Biden has seen his polling numbers inch up slightly, and the economy has also shown signs of improvement, including a slowdown of inflation.
Collectively, the streak of good news gave Biden a running start as he prepared to announce another run for the presidency.
But the drip-drip-drip of Biden’s possession of the classified documents — first discovered at his onetime office in Washington and then inside his Wilmington garage — made Democrats nervous. The appointment of a special counsel on Thursday created more anxiety.
Appearing on MSNBC on Thursday evening, Biden’s former press secretary Jen Psaki voiced some of that fear.
“No one wants a special counsel. You don’t go into a year before you may run for president and think, ‘I want a special counsel this year. No one wants that,” Psaki said, before adding that the White House had projected a sense of confidence that this was “likely sloppy staff work during a transition,” and could “end up over the long term, even with short-term pain, being to their benefit.”
Former Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), a past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Republicans could overreach on the documents’ revelation, pointing to lessons learned from the Tea Party majority that preceded former President Obama’s successful reelection in 2012.
“President Obama was comfortably reelected and Democrats picked up eight House seats,” Israel said. “I think what happened is that the GOP majority overplayed their hand. They excited their base, but after a while lost moderate voters who wanted focus and everyday challenges and not daily inquisitions.”
But privately, Democrats acknowledged that this is not how Biden wanted to enter 2023.
“Everyone can say what they want but this weakens him, full stop,” said one Clinton campaign veteran. “This is just one of those things that will stick around and won’t go away.
“It’s annoying and it will continue to loom whether they like it or not,” the former Clinton aide added. “It just creates the question. ‘If he’s being this frivolous with the documents in the garage with his Corvette, who knows what else he’s doing?’”
GOP strategist Susan Del Percio said the revelation of the documents was a gift to Republicans.
“This one is on a platter,” Del Percio said of the revelations. “In and of itself, it’s not a big deal but it’s how it’s weaponized by Republicans.”
Up until now, she said, all Republicans had on Biden was the tax and business dealings controversy around Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and issues around the economy.
“If Biden wanted a reason not to run, this is a pretty good one,” Del Percio said. “He’s not going to want this kind of campaign … if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”