Analysis: Documents probe dents Biden’s claims to competence
Published 8:34 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2023
WASHINGTON — Joe Biden offered himself to Americans as a president they wouldn’t have to think about after the tumult of his predecessor. But an excruciating week of awkward disclosures and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate classified records found at his Delaware home and a former office dating to his time as vice president is beginning to strain his claim to competence.
The surprise revelations that on at least four different occasions Biden’s lawyers found improperly stored classified documents and official records evoked the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency, a four-year ruckus from which Biden has tried to move the country past. In the latest development, the White House acknowledged on Saturday that Biden’s lawyers had turned up even more such documents at the home than previously known.
It’s an embarrassment to Biden, and the selection of a special counsel to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing in the matter exposes the president to a new, self-inflicted risk.
Further, it complicates the Justice Department’s calculus about whether to bring charges against Trump over his handling of classified material, hands fresh ammunition to newly empowered House Republicans eager to launch investigations and undercuts a central plank of Biden’s pitch to voters just as he looks to launch a reelection bid in the coming months.
“It just won’t be so exhausting,” former President Barack Obama had promised about a Biden presidency in the closing days of the 2020 campaign, adding that voters are “not going to have to think about the crazy things … and that is worth a lot.”
The Biden case is markedly different from Trump’s mishandling of classified documents and official records — not least because Biden’s team voluntarily turned them over to federal officials when they were discovered. Still, it has caused private frustration among Biden allies and some advisers because the president and his team, as billed, were supposed to be better than this.
The current White House explanation, offered by lawyer Richard Sauber, is that the special counsel’s inquiry “will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced” — a “mistake” with the nation’s secrets.
Biden seemingly ignored or forgot about a cardinal rule in politics: Check your closet for skeletons before you complain about someone else’s. His public criticisms about Trump’s “ irresponsible “ handling of classified documents, however different the circumstances, are now coming back to haunt him.
Biden allies say the packing up of his vice presidential office happened swiftly. Biden aimed to run through the tape on his eight years alongside Obama even as aides worked to close down his office before Trump’s inauguration at noon on Jan. 20, 2017.
But that explanation, said Richard Painter, the top ethics official in the George W. Bush administration, suggests behavior that was “incredibly careless and really quite shocking.”
Painter said that while Biden probably would avoid the criminal issues looming over Trump because there is so far no sense that Biden intentionally mishandled classified records, it still merited investigation.
“You never just pack stuff up and cart it out of there,” Painter said. He said aides and lawyers are supposed to carefully sift through what are official records that are property of the National Archives and personal records that may be removed.
“To say nothing of classified documents which have these distinctive markings on them,” Painter said. “It’s still very worrisome. It’s a serious national security breach.”
Beyond all that, the piecemeal way that word of the discoveries became public — more than two months after the first batch of classified documents had been found at the Penn Biden Center in Washington — has drawn bewilderment from crisis management experts.
“The White House can’t let itself be seen as hiding information or be bled to death by investigators’ or others’ leaks,” said Adam Goldberg, who served as special associate counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-1999.
It wasn’t until Monday that the White House confirmed that classified documents had been found at Biden’s former office on Nov. 2, days before the midterm elections. Even then, that acknowledgement came only in response to news inquiries.
Not until Thursday did Biden lawyers acknowledge the Dec. 20 discovery of documents in the garage of Biden’s house in Wilmington, Delaware, and inform the Justice Department that another classified record had been found the night before in Biden’s home library.
“If there’s any further bad news out there, they better be the ones to put it out and put it out all at once,” Goldberg said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had said Thursday that Americans can “assume” there are no more classified documents or government records improperly stored after Biden’s personal lawyers conducted a final search that concluded on Wednesday evening.
She repeatedly deflected questions about the White House’s public disclosures, insisting the president’s team was handling handling the matter the “right way” by deferring to the Justice Department.
A statement from Sauber on Saturday about the latest discovery of classified documents in Delaware did not explain why the White House waited two days to provide an updated accounting.
If Biden’s White House needs to get its messaging back on track after a week of missteps and unforced errors, Trump’s issues go well beyond mere competence.
“On the political front, assuming the White House gets its communications right, I’m not worried about any political fallout,” said Goldberg. “With Trump, competency hasn’t been the issue, intentional misconduct has been. While Republicans will try to muddy this up, there’s just such a big difference between Biden discovering and disclosing these on his own and Trump’s obstruction and lying.”