The White House is once again struggling with its messaging, this time over the discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president, where administration officials have tried to minimize the damage caused by the disclosure but struggled to address it coherently.
Democrats, meanwhile, have had scattered reactions, ranging from praising the Biden administration for its cooperation with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and national archives, to suggesting that a congressional review of materials about national security concerns be proposed. Others have acknowledged what a political headache it has become for the President.
The incoherent replies reflect, at times, mixed news from the White House, including when it rushed to tell reporters last week that a search for classified documents that Biden may be holding was “completed,” before days later the administration said that other documents were found.
Officials have insisted they have only limited say about the discovery of the documents, what is inside them and when the President was briefed on the situation, citing an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department and the appointment of a special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was chosen by Biden to head the agency.
“We understand there is a tension between the need to be cooperative with an ongoing DOJ investigation and legitimate requests for additional public information. And so we’re trying to strike that balance and be as clear as we can,” Ian Sams, a White House investigations spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.
Bringing the public up to speed on the matter has been largely left to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who has at times clashed with reporters over questions about why the White House didn’t disclose the discovery when it was made in November , when Biden learned of this and whether other searches were underway.
On Thursday, Jean-Pierre said that “you should assume it’s locked, yes,” in response to a question about a second set of documents that surfaced at Biden’s Delaware home, including in his garage. But on Saturday, the White House acknowledged that five other classified documents had been found at Biden’s home — the first time the administration, not a news report, unveiled a discovery.
When questioned on Tuesday about being ordered not to come forward, Jean-Pierre said she knew as much as the press late last week before the next discovery broke on Saturday.
She also pushed back when asked if she was upset that she came out with incomplete and inaccurate information at the briefing on Friday.
“Well, I’m worried about making sure we don’t get involved politically in the Justice Department, that we’ve continued to be consistent over the last two years. And that continues to relate to all of you when it comes to an ongoing process,” she said.
Jean-Pierre added that she and other members of the press office learned about the documents in Biden’s Washington office in November when CBS broke the news last week. The press secretary was also asked whether the White House would have released the results without the CBS report.
Former Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC Sunday that one of the biggest questions the White House has to answer is who chose not to inform the public last year when Biden’s attorneys the found materials.
“The political issue is the one that no one has talked about, so why have they waited to tell us? I mean, they knew that before midterms,” Christie said. “If you’re Joe Biden saying, ‘I have to be transparent. Don’t Trump. He is irresponsible for having these in his house.’ And now he knows he has a bunch in his house.”
“I think the really interesting part of the Special Counsel’s investigation, more interesting than the documents themselves… will be who made that decision? Did Ron Klain make that decision?” Christie said, referring to Biden’s chief of staff, one of the president’s closest longtime associates and confidants.
But Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, said it’s likely been frustrating for the White House press office to be limited in what it can share with the public. He denied that the White House news made matters worse, arguing that many officials in the building were likely grappling with the same insecurities as the press.
“This happens when the information is slowly coming out, and there’s always this idea that somehow the magical communicator could have made it all go away by packaging the information perfectly so no one would follow through,” Bennett said. “I don’t think that’s real.”
There were some signs that the White House was beginning to fix its messaging strategy about a week after the story first broke.
Bob Bauer, a personal counsel for the president, issued a lengthy statement Saturday that included a detailed timeline of events and offered an explanation of why the White House may be limited in its testimony. Bauer cited a desire not to offer incomplete information, noting that frequent disclosures that reveal details about witnesses or the contents of the documents could undermine the DOJ’s investigation.
And the White House organized a press call for reporters on Tuesday to answer questions from reporters who have been heavily criticized for failing to update the public on every new discovery of classified documents — and took the opportunity to take a shot at the GOP throw.
“While the President and his team are fully cooperating, acting responsibly, and making sure this is handled properly, you’ve seen something very different unfold among elected Republicans. What are you doing? They decided it was time for more political stunts and drama,” Sams said.
The White House specifically targeted new House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) and his response to the discovery of classified documents, likening his response to the seizure of classified documents from former President Trump’s Florida home by the FBI.
Sams stressed that Comer said investigating Trump’s document handling will not be a priority for Republicans, but said his committee would investigate Biden’s document handling.
“He openly admits on TV that he doesn’t care about the underlying issue and doesn’t even think President Biden knows about it,” Sams said in an interview given to Comer to CNN over the weekend.
The document controversy has overshadowed the White House’s hoped-for opportunity to compare Biden’s accomplishments in his first two years in office with some of the dysfunctions over the speakership exhibited by the Republican majority in the new House.
Instead, recent press conferences have been dominated by questions about who knew what and when they were informed, and Democrats who have appeared on Sunday programs have been pressed for their assessment of the document discoveries.
Rep. Adam Schiff (California), a longtime senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and former chairman, said Sunday the government needs to answer questions about why the discovery wasn’t disclosed on Nov. 2 when it happened.
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“I think the administration will have to answer that question. I’ll reserve judgment until they do,” he told ABC, adding that the way the Biden team handled the search for documents was “a very sharp contrast” to Trump’s handling of it be them.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is retiring in 2024, saw things differently.
“Well, it sure is embarrassing. Right?” she told NBC. “I mean, it’s embarrassing that you would find a small number of documents, certainly not on purpose.”