Joe Biden’s missteps over secret documents create self-inflicted crisis

Bloomberg — The latest discovery of classified material at Joe Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delawarehighlights the long-term political and legal risk to the president from a rapidly developing investigation that could lead to damaging new revelations.

The disclosure this week of confidential documents in Biden’s office and private residence has embarrassed and undermined the president, his lawyers and spokesmen., who have argued that they are acting according to the rules. Although they have claimed to have taken due precautions, promptly informed the government and arranged for the return of the material, they say they must weigh disclosures to the public against legal considerations.

But the decision to wait more than two months, until after the midterm elections, to reveal the initial discovery of classified documents has fueled criticism of the president’s commitment to transparency, which has only grown as Biden and his team stumbled for the week after.

Statements by the president, his lawyers, and his spokesmen omitting key details — including information later revealed in news reports or subsequent statements — have only added to the impression that the White House has something to hide. And the steady stream of revelations pushed Republican dysfunction on Capitol Hill out of the headlines, while 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 reproduce and escalate as newly appointed special counsel Robert Hur begins to investigate the circumstances that led to the finding of classified documents at Biden’s home and an old office. Republicans are sure to take advantage of any wrongdoing by Biden or his aides, in an effort both to embarrass the president and to protect Trump, who is under investigation for refusing to return a much larger number of classified documents to the government.

Parallels between Trump and Clinton

The White House’s best bet is that its cautious, conservative approach will ultimately be vindicated. The president’s lawyers say they will fully cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation, and hope Biden is exonerated for what they describe as innocent mistakes that were properly handled.

But the risk is that the case will take unexpected directions, or that additional revelations will provide Republicans with enough ammunition to maintain a consistent political attack. Past special counsel investigations — including the probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia — have often spanned 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 your emails” – may have cost her the presidency.

In the coming months, the president and his aides will inevitably face difficult questions as new information about the documents and their handling is revealed. Political pressure will mount for them to offer a fuller explanation, even as Biden’s lawyers balk at revealing details that could complicate the special counsel’s investigation.

The key for the White House will be to avoid a performance like the one this week, when the president’s lawyers and spokesmen appeared to violate the cardinal rule of crisis communications: recognize the full scope of a problem as soon as possible.

Republican lawmakers have already seized on the first questionable decision by Biden’s lawyers: not to disclose the existence of the first batch of classified material closer to the time it was discovered in November, just before the midterm elections.

incomplete search

Biden and the White House did not acknowledge the documents found at the Penn Biden Center for Global Diplomacy and Engagement in Washington until this week, after CBS News reported their existence. But the president and his lawyers then made another fateful decision, choosing not to publicly disclose that a second batch of classified material had been discovered in the garage of his Wilmington home in December.

The existence of those documents – which had already been returned to the federal government – was reported Wednesday by NBC News. Biden’s legal team was silent until the next day, when it released a statement acknowledging the papers from the garage, as well as an additional classified document “consisting of one page” found “among materials stored in an adjacent room.”

The statement also said that the president’s lawyers had “completed” their search Wednesday night at Biden’s homes in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed to reporters that the search was over. “They have to assume it’s completed,” she said at a briefing on Thursday. But it was not like that.

In fact, because Biden’s personal attorneys lacked security clearances, they halted their review Wednesday when they discovered the classified page at Biden’s Wilmington home. White House special counsel Richard Sauber, who has a security clearance, traveled to Wilmington the following night to transfer the document to Justice Department officials, he said in a statement Saturday. In the process, he discovered an additional five pages of classified material.

“The secrecy of the Biden White House on this matter is alarming,” the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Kentucky Republican James Comer, said in a statement Saturday. “Equally alarming is the fact that Biden aides were combing through documents knowing that special counsel would be appointed.”

The White House did not respond to questions about the apparent discrepancy between their statements. But Bob Bauer, the president’s private attorney, said the Biden team had tried to avoid publicly identifying specific witnesses, documents or events that could complicate the special counsel’s investigation.

“The president’s personal attorneys have sought to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with established standards and limitations necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation,” Bauer said in a statement Saturday. “These considerations require avoiding public disclosure of details relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.”

With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Akayla Gardner.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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