Spinning a Classified Tale

By Dov Katzenstein

President Joe Biden responds to questions from reporters after speaking about the economy in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in Washington.. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Is President Joseph Biden a norm-respecting executive who made a mistake and is following the rules to correct it, and most importantly, whose behavior bears no resemblance to his predecessor?  Or is he a hypocrite whose oddly timed admissions to holding classified documents in unauthorized locations begs some uncomfortable questions about his reputation as a Washington institutionalist and about the security breaches he might be responsible for?  Those two alternative narratives are the views politicians and commentators have worked to sell to the American public over revelations about the documents found over the past week in the President’s former office and his homes in Delaware.

Despite some significant differences that appear to lie between the Biden and Trump document scandals, and no matter how much spin media and Democrats apply to the issue, the President has little way to escape the egg on his face from comments he made in an interview shortly after the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago.

“How anyone could be that irresponsible,” he responded to an interviewer when asked about the find.

The President’s staff claim they turned over documents to the National Archives as soon as they were found, and that the administration is cooperating with the investigation. Still, President Biden’s response to a reporter’s question about the second set of papers found near his sports car did not project much of a sense that the classified material was safe and sound.

“My Corvette’s in a locked garage, OK? So it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street,” he said.

According to President Biden’s lawyers and White House staff, the first batch of papers were found in early November in the Penn Biden Center, a think tank funded by the University of Pennsylvania, located in Washington. The office was established shortly after the end of the Obama administration and was being cleaned out by the President’s attorneys. When the documents were found, lawyers say they were immediately turned over to the National Archives and the DOJ was notified.

Last week, after the discovery of that batch was announced to the public, the President’s private homes in Delaware were also searched, producing two more small sets of classified material. The documents date back to President Biden’s tenure as Vice President in the Obama White House. A CNN report said that they were related to Iran and Ukraine.

As news of the documents became public, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Robert Hur to serve as special counsel in all matters relating to the Biden classified documents matter. As is the case with Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing the Mar-a-Lago documents case, his appointment is intended to give the investigation an additional degree of independence, but decisions can be ultimately made or overruled by the Attorney General.

Mr. Hur, the son of South Korean immigrants, has worked in various capacities in the DOJ, starting in 2007, leaving in 2014 and returning in 2014. In 2017, he was appointed by former President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. attorney for Maryland.

While mishandling classified documents is a crime that is regularly prosecuted when it involves lower-level government employees, there is little precedent with high-ranking officials, let alone presidents. It seems unlikely that President Biden’s documents would have made the news, much less warranted a special counsel appointment, had the DOJ not taken the same actions regarding the documents found in Mr. Trump’s possession.

The White House has repeatedly said that they are fully cooperating with the investigation and that the documents’ mishandling was the result of an accident. President Biden’s initial public response to hearing of the document’s whereabouts was that he was “surprised.”

White House attorney Richard Stauber said his team was “confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake.”

Claiming that the documents’ location was the result of an accident serves two key roles in the Biden team’s narrative. Firstly, it seeks to differentiate the story from its Mar-a-Lago counterpart, where Mr. Trump is accused of having knowingly taken hundreds of classified papers. Of equal importance is the fact that statutes governing the removal of classified material deem it criminal to “knowingly” remove and store such documents in an unauthorized manner.

Republican officials have pointed out that all classified documents are clearly marked as such, making claims of accidental removal suspicious.

Robert Bauer, a personal attorney to the President, said that his team was attempting “to balance the importance of public transparency, where appropriate, with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity.”

Yet many have questioned the President’s associate’s approach. All information relating to the documents has flowed from the White House, which seems to be carefully controlling the narrative. The President or his spokesmen have yet to answer questions as to why finding the first batch at the Penn Biden Center was not made public for over two months. The question gets thicker, since the find took place days before mid-term elections and news could certainly have born on Democrats’ performance. The DOJ is attempting to present itself as independent through its appointment of Mr. Hur, but as the Department was supposedly told about the find, it too should have to answer for keeping it under wraps.

The Biden team has also failed to address why an office, closed for over two years, was being cleaned and why the President’s attorneys were on hand as the moving job was underway.

Most Democratic officials and mainstream media commentators have followed the White House’s lead, saying the special counsel appointment is warranted, but differentiating between President Biden’s document tale and Mar-a-Lago.

“The attorney general has to make sure that not only is justice evenly applied, but the appearances of justice are also satisfactory to the public,” California Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee told ABC. “The Biden approach was very different in the sense that it looks that it was inadvertent that these documents were at these locations…There was no effort to hold onto them, no effort to conceal them, no effort to obstruct the Justice Department’s investigation.”

A CBS report presented statements from a group of high-ranking Democratic sources expressing frustration with President Biden’s handling of the matter.

“There’s no real equivalency between the Trump document situation and Biden’s. However, why in the world didn’t they get the story out earlier, like before the holidays? And why didn’t they get the full story out at once, instead of drip, drip, drip with each new discovery of documents? Put simply, it was not handled well at all,” said an anonymous northeastern party official.

While most of the Democratic efforts to distinguish between the present scandal and Mr. Trump’s are based on fact; chiefly the number of documents in question and the President’s voluntary surrender of them; it is hard to imagine that the two issues will not affect each other. While the two special counsels are ostensibly independent of each other and the DOJ, the Attorney General would face tremendous scrutiny if one case led to an indictment and not the other.  

The former President lost no time in using President Biden’s document woes to tell a different story of his own.

“The White House just announced that there are no LOGS or information of any kind on visitors to the Wilmington house and flimsy, unlocked, and unsecured, but now very famous, garage,” Mr. Trump posted on his social media forum. “This is one of seemingly many places where HIGHLY CLASSIFIED documents are stored (in a big pile on the damp floor). Mar-a-Lago is a highly secured facility, with Security Cameras all over the place, and watched over by staff & our great Secret Service.”

The revelations about President Biden’s possession of classified documents seemed to back up assumptions made by some commentators when Mr. Trump’s parallel story became public, that is it not uncommon for executives or cabinet members to keep such materials in residences. If so, that would make it more difficult for Mr. Garland to explain the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid and the investigation that followed.

Republicans took advantage of their recent claiming of House committees to use them for oversight into the documents.

“I think if you call a lawyer to remove something for your office, he must have known ahead of time,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said at a press conference. “So, I think he has a lot of answers to the American public. The good thing about that is the American public has a Congress that can get the answers.”

The House Intelligence Committee requested an analysis of the potential security compromises connected to the documents.

Kentucky Congressman James Comer, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, requested a log of visitors to the two Biden homes where the papers were kept. A Secret Service spokesman denied that such records are kept of the President’s private residences.

One suspected security risk lived in one of the residences where documents where found — the President’s son Hunter Biden.

“Hunter, when he was addicted … and in a downward spiral, was living in the house when the documents were in the garage,” wrote commentator Byron York in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “That could be a problem in two senses. One, Hunter Biden, always trying to make some money off his father’s names and connections, had a lot of shady foreign associates. And two, Hunter had what you might call a lax attitude toward information security.” 

The find has also brought increased scrutiny on the Penn Biden Center. The think tank received its funding fully from the University that created it to be led by the former Vice President. Last week, reports by the New York Post and Washington Free Bacon highlighted the sharp increase in donations from Chinese banks, businesses and anonymous sources after the center’s inception, tripling from $31 million in 2016 to over $100 million in 2019.

“This is a center set up by a university president who raised tens of millions from the Chinese,” Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, told the Washington Examiner. “I don’t think that [Biden] willingly turned over classified information to the Chinese, but I’d be a little surprised if Chinese agents didn’t get into that place.”

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