‘Unforced errors’: A White House facing a fresh crisis
Since early November, when President Joe Biden’s attorneys first found documents with secret markings in his private office in Washington, DC, the extraordinarily small number of aides kept on record have adhered to one rule: Don’t say anything publicly which could jeopardize the investigation.
For 68 days, that meant nothing at all. When the saga broke last week, the White House was still exceptionally picky about what it shared – prompting a flurry of questions and criticism about how much it reveals and when.
Biden himself has fretted over how much he can publicly reveal, telling reporters twice last week that he hopes to have more to say.
“God willing, I will soon have an opportunity to speak about all of this,” he said Thursday, hours before Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Related: What We Know About the Biden Secret Documents: A Timeline of Events
Behind-the-scenes sources said Biden is frustrated with how the saga has unfolded, particularly with how his administration’s handling of the story has slipped past a positive streak.
People close to the White House say there’s a mood of quiet resignation — an it is what it is mentality — among Biden advisers right now as they, too, wait to hear if there’s any news in the coming days about further misplaced classified information will emerge .
On Monday, after a weekend that unveiled another disclosure of misplaced classified documents found at Biden’s Wilmington home last week — and his personal attorney went into defense — the president had only one item on his public schedule: one Speech to the National Action Network commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who founded the group, told CNN Monday that Biden appeared “upbeat” as the two spoke privately on the sidelines of the event. Biden made no mention of the classified documents saga that had gripped the White House for the past week, Sharpton said.
And when Biden privately mentioned House Republicans to Sharpton, he didn’t rescind their promises to examine the classified documents: “He said that as Congress changes, there will be more difficulties with legislation.” But he said he will try to work with Republicans and reach out to them,” Sharpton said, including on the voting rights issue.
Biden’s decision not to raise the issue — either publicly or in his talks with allies — is consistent with his team’s mandate not to derail the investigation and make matters worse.
Bob Bauer, the President’s personal attorney who handled the documents matter, has noted that public release of details of the investigation could jeopardize the ongoing investigation, which is now with 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 the established norms and limitations needed to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
“These considerations require avoiding the public release of details relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing,” he wrote.
The small circle of White House advisers who have been on the case over the past two months — and Biden himself — have adhered closely to those guidelines, believing release of more information could potentially jeopardize the investigation.
But even some of the president’s closest allies have wondered aloud why the White House waited so long before informing the public about the misplaced classified documents, first found in early November. You’ve also wondered why, when the White House Office publicly confirmed for the first time last week that a stack of classified documents had been discovered in Biden’s office, it didn’t mention that more were found in Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, in December were, homeland.
Former Democratic Senator Doug Jones, a close Biden ally who was a top contender to become his attorney general, told CNN in an interview that he believes the White House has been hampered by “unforced errors.”
Jones said he believed Biden’s attorneys handled the situation “perfectly appropriately” by immediately notifying the National Archives after encountering the first batch of classified documents. But when Richard Sauber, Biden’s special adviser, released his first public statement last week confirming that discovery, Jones said the White House made a serious error of judgment.
“Once you make 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 though they knew about it.”
In his next conversation with senior West Wing officials — whenever that may be — Jones said he would tell them, “Gosh, come on. You gotta do a better job when that shit happens.” That’s what I’d 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 moments where they obviously wish it hadn’t happened,” Stabenow said on NBC’s Meet the Press, though she conceded that Biden’s attorneys are clearly working to “rectify” the situation.
If the misplaced classified documents have created a new crisis for Biden, the legal sensitivities surrounding the issue have prevented the White House from employing tools from its usual political playbook.
For the past week, White House officials have exercised extreme caution over questions about the classified documents, citing the ongoing Justice Department review — and, since Thursday, an investigation by the special counsel — as the reason they were unable to share information on the issue .
There were no written talking points widely circulated to Democrat 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 policy dilemmas, but is seen as simply inappropriate given the gravity of a Justice Department investigation.
Last week, after the first revelations about documents in Biden’s private office surfaced, the White House called a call with top allies to explain the investigation, hoping to quell mounting criticism and questions about the discovery. On the call, a White House official characterized the documents as “fewer than a dozen,” said two people familiar with the call, neither of whom were “particularly sensitive” and “not of much interest to the intelligence community.”
It wasn’t until a day later that news surfaced that additional documents had been found at a second location, bringing the total number of classified documents to about 20 – exposing the difficulty for White House staffers, a story without a full picture of its scope to handle.
A Democratic leadership aide on Capitol Hill said White House officials have made it clear in discussions with allies that there are two things to emphasize: that the White House is committed to fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation, and that it notable differences between the people classified by Biden are documents discovered to date and the trove of classified documents discovered at former President Donald Trump’s club in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.
Biden’s advisers acknowledge that the coming weeks or months will be challenging as they take on the special counsel’s work while attempting to advance Biden’s agenda in anticipation of an expected announcement that he is seeking re-election, which will come as early as next month could.
There will almost certainly be questions about which aides will be summoned to testify before the Special Counsel and who, if anyone, is to blame for the documents being misplaced.
Some of the president’s allies suggested that Hur’s appointment could help Biden in the long run by providing a clean comparison to Trump — who is himself the subject of a special investigator investigation for his handling of classified documents. Biden’s advisers believe the findings from the two special advisers will show the clear differences between the two cases. One ally likened it to a “short-term pain, long-term gain” situation.
For his part, Biden hasn’t addressed the documents matter since last week, when he was a little annoyed at a question about why classified material was being stored next to his 1967 Stingray Corvette.
“By the way, my Corvette is in a locked garage, okay, so it’s not like it’s out on the street,” he said.
Over the weekend, Biden returned to his home in Wilmington with one of his senior advisers, Steve Ricchetti, who served as vice president as chief of staff and held a senior role at the Biden Penn Center.