Since the day in early November when President Joe Biden’s attorneys first found documents with classified marks in his private office in Washington, D.C., the extraordinarily small number of briefed aides have adhered to one rule: do not say anything publicly that could jeopardize the investigation. .
For 68 days, that meant nothing at all. As the saga broke into public view last week, the White House was still exceptionally selective in what it shared – leading to a torrent of questions and criticism over what it reveals and when.
Biden himself has chafed at all he is able to reveal publicly, telling reporters twice last week that he hoped to say more.
“I’m going to have the opportunity to talk about all of this, God willing, soon,” he said Thursday, hours before Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Related: What We Know About Classified Biden Documents: A Timeline of Events
Behind the scenes, sources said Biden grew frustrated with the way the saga unfolded, particularly how his administration’s handling of the story went beyond what had been a positive stretch.
People close to the White House say there is currently an atmosphere of quiet resignation among Biden aides – a “it is what it is” mentality – as they too are waiting to hear if any news of classified documents More misguided ones will surface in the coming days.
On Monday, after a weekend that revealed a new leak of misplaced classified documents found at Biden’s Wilmington home last week — and his personal defense attorney — the president had only one item on his public agenda: a speech to the National Action Network to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader who founded the group, told CNN on Monday that Biden seemed “optimistic” when the two spoke privately on the sidelines of the event. Biden made no mention of the classified documents saga that had engulfed the White House over the past week, Sharpton said.
And when Biden privately mentioned House Republicans to Sharpton, he did not raise their promises to investigate the classified documents: “He said that with the change in Congress, it would be more difficult to legislate. But he said he would try to work with Republicans and reach out to them,” including on the issue of voting rights, Sharpton said.
Biden’s decision to avoid bringing up the subject — whether in public or in his conversations with allies — respects his team’s mandate to avoid harming the investigation and making matters worse.
Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney who handled the documents case, determined that public release of the details of the investigation could interfere with the ongoing investigation, which now rests with the special counsel. Robert Hur.
In his first public statement on the case, Bauer said Biden’s personal attorneys “attempted to balance the importance of public transparency, where appropriate, with established standards and limitations necessary to protect the integrity of investigation”.
“These considerations necessitate avoiding public disclosure of details relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing,” he wrote.
The small circle of White House advisers who knew about the matter for the past two months — and Biden himself — took the advice closely, believing that releasing more information could potentially harm investigation.
Yet even some of the president’s closest allies have wondered aloud why the White House waited so long to release the misplaced classified documents first discovered in early November. They also wondered why, when the White House attorney’s office first publicly confirmed last week that a batch of classified documents had been discovered in Biden’s office, it didn’t mention that others had been found in December at Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home.
Former Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, a close Biden ally who was a leading contender for attorney general, told CNN in an interview that he believes the White House has been hobbled by “mistakes.” direct”.
Jones said he believed Biden’s attorneys handled the situation “absolutely appropriately” by immediately notifying the National Archives after coming across the first batch of classified documents. But it was when Richard Sauber, Biden’s special counsel, released his first public statement confirming that discovery last week that Jones said the White House had made a serious error in judgment.
“Once you have made a statement, once you have the facts, you have to be full and complete. They weren’t full and complete,” Jones said. “They talked about the first [batch of documents] but not the second [batch] even if they knew it. »
In his next conversation with senior West Wing aides – whenever it might be – Jones said he would say to them, “God, go ahead. You have to do a better job when bullshit like this happens. That’s exactly what I would say.
Over the weekend, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow said the discovery of the classified documents was “certainly embarrassing” for Biden.
“It’s one of those times when obviously they wished they hadn’t happened,” Stabenow said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” though she acknowledged that Biden’s attorneys were clearly trying hard to “correct” the situation.
While the misplaced classified documents have created a new crisis for Biden, legal sensitivities surrounding the issue have prevented the White House from deploying tools from its usual policy playbook.
Over the past week, White House officials have been extraordinarily cautious when asked about the classified documents, pointing to the Justice Department’s ongoing review — and, from from Thursday, an investigation by a special counsel – as a reason for not being able to share any information. on this point.
There have been no widely circulated written talking points to Democratic allies, including lawmakers on the Hill, advising them on how best to publicly defend the White House. Such a move would not be unusual for other political dilemmas, but is seen as simply inappropriate given the seriousness of a Justice Department investigation.
Last week, after the first revelation about documents from Biden’s private office emerged, the White House convened a call with key allies to explain the probe, hoping to assuage criticism and questions. growing on discovery. During the call, a White House official called the documents “less than a dozen”, said two people familiar with the call, none of which are “particularly sensitive” and “do not present a great interest to the intelligence community”.
It wasn’t until a day later that news emerged that additional documents had been found at a second location, bringing the total number of classified documents to around 20 – laying bare the difficulty for White House aides to manage a story without a complete picture of its scope.
A Democratic executive aide on Capitol Hill said White House aides have made it clear in conversations with allies that two angles are worth emphasizing: that the White House is committed to full cooperation with the investigation is ongoing and that there are notable differences between the Biden classified documents uncovered so far and the hoards of classified documents uncovered at former President Donald Trump’s club at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
Biden aides acknowledge that the coming weeks or months will present a challenge as they grapple with the work of the special counsel while trying to promote Biden’s agenda ahead of an expected announcement he is seeking to to be re-elected, which could take place as early as next month.
There will almost certainly be questions about the aides called to testify before the special advocate and who, if any, will be responsible for the lost documents.
Some allies of the president have suggested Hur’s appointment could serve Biden in the long run by providing a clear comparison to Trump – who himself is under investigation by a special counsel over his handling of classified documents. . Biden aides believe the results of the two special counsels will demonstrate the clear differences between the two cases. One ally compared it to a “short term pain, long term gain” situation.
Biden, for his part, has not addressed the issue of the documents since last week, when he vented his anger at a question about why classified documents were stored next to his 1967 Corvette Stingray. .
“By the way, my Corvette is in a locked garage, OK, so it’s not like it’s sitting on the street,” he said.
Over the weekend, Biden returned to his Wilmington home with one of his senior advisers, Steve Ricchetti, who served as his chief of staff when he was vice president and served in a leadership role at the Biden Penn Center.
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