Investigation of documents shines a spotlight on Biden’s frenetic final days as vice president


President Joe Biden speaks at an event at the White House marking the second anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington on Friday, January 6, 2023. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The past few days have been a blur of phone calls, meetings, farewell events and visits to Ukraine and Switzerland. As he wrapped up his tenure as vice president in January 2017, Joe Biden packed as much as he could.

The question now is: what else was packed? And by who? And why? And where did it go?

The appointment of a special counsel has brought new attention to Biden’s frantic final stretch in the White House after eight years as President Barack Obama’s No. 2. Somehow, a small number of classified documents would go not to the archives, where they belonged, but to Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and later to a private office in Washington, where they did not end up.

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Now that Biden is back in the White House, he’s struggling to explain what happened. His administration kept the discovery of sensitive data a secret from the public for two months until media reports revealed it, and has had to update its version of events several times in the past week. On Saturday, the White House said that after previously reporting that a page of classified material had been found in a room off the garage at the Wilmington House, five more pages had been discovered by Justice Department personnel who had come to investigate the case. pick up material.

Robert Hur, who was appointed special counsel on Thursday by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the misuse of those papers, will no doubt struggle to reconstruct the events of those winter days in 2017 when members of the outgoing Deputy Attorney General’s staff president hurried to pack their things. files, turn in their badges, work with the incoming team and find a new job on their own. The White House has not yet provided an explanation for how or why the documents ended up privately in Biden’s hands.

For Biden, January 2017 was a time of uncertainty. For the first time in 44 years he would be out of government, no longer senator, no longer vice president, no longer at the center of battle, no longer with a clear future ahead. He would definitely write a book and start a think tank. Months would pass before he would decide to run for president again. And during that transitional period, something went wrong.

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Biden said last week that “I was surprised to learn there are government documents that have been brought to that office.” No public evidence has emerged to indicate that he knew they had been taken inappropriately. If the vice president didn’t personally remove them when he left the White House, Hur will no doubt try to find out which aides were involved in packing his papers.

Even before Hur’s appointment, Justice Department officials had interviewed several Biden associates, according to people familiar with the investigation. Among them was Kathy Chung, who was Biden’s executive assistant when he was vice president and now works for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, NBC News reported.

Chung was said to have helped pack Biden’s office in January 2017, but there is no public indication whether she handled the documents in question or knew anything she was storing for handover was secret.

The White House has declined to answer questions beyond limited statements issued over the past week. “We’ve been transparent over the past few days,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Friday.

But the White House had not been transparent in recent months. The first secret documents were found on November 2 and a second batch on December 20. After the initial discovery, the White House immediately notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which then notified the Justice Department.

However, lawyers had privately resisted disclosure because they wanted to wait for a fuller picture to emerge and not alienate the Justice Department by litigating the case in the media.

As Biden prepared to leave the public sector, his vice presidential chief of staff, Steven Ricchetti, and other advisers helped him put together a blueprint for life after the White House to channel his energy and efforts.

Among them was a memoir Biden published in November 2017 called “Promise Me, Dad,” in reference to his son Beau, who had died of brain cancer in 2015 and reportedly urged his father to stay in the public arena. Many former presidents and vice presidents try to use government documents through a regular process to compile their memoirs, but it’s not clear if the documents found in recent months were part of book searches.

Another project Biden took on after the White House was the creation of a think tank affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, which opened in February 2018. It was in his office at the Washington headquarters of the Penn Biden Center that the first batch of classified documents was found in November, more than three years after Biden formally stepped down from the center to run for president.

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No information has emerged explaining where those files were stored in the year between Biden’s departure from the vice presidency and the think tank’s opening, at what point they arrived in the new offices, or why they are still there years later. always were. But a subsequent search by his lawyers turned up another batch of classified papers in the garage of Biden’s Wilmington home. None were found at his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

The Obama and Biden White Houses had established a regular process for handling classified documents, and the White House Office of Records Management worked closely with the records to ensure that files were transferred appropriately.

Everything the president saw was archived. Classified documents would be returned and placed in the National Security Council system or, in the case of domestic policy, the Office of Records Management system. The office of the White House secretary of staff was responsible for ensuring that the documents were properly managed.

The system, similar to the one used by other White Houses, was hardly foolproof even before President Donald Trump came along and openly broke the rules, regularly tearing up government documents instead of keeping them as required by law. Trump is under investigation for hoarding sensitive documents at his Florida Mar-a-Lago estate and failed to return them all, even after being subpoenaed. Unlike Biden, Trump has maintained he was entitled to the classified documents, even claiming to have released them, although there is no evidence to support this. He has resisted to the point that authorities are considering charging him with obstruction of justice.

Even in more standard administrations, secret documents are mixed with unclassified files. Some White House veterans said that when such papers are discovered after they leave office, they are supposed to be immediately returned to the archives. Such incidents do not necessarily lead to criminal charges if the authorities do not establish an intent to circumvent the rules.

Trump’s last days in office were mostly chaotic because he refused to concede the election, but even in the best of circumstances, the final days in a White House can be disorganized and difficult. There are far fewer staff in the West Wing than usual as the White House staggers employee departures ahead of the takeover of the new president and administration on Jan. 20.

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In recent days, many employees have handed in their White House passes and their government-issued laptops and phones and cleaned up their offices. The leftists often struggle with the need to take up their ongoing responsibilities, which the Constitution says lasts until the last minutes. Former White House officials who stayed until the end described continuing to pack their offices during the final hours of Inauguration Day, when they are required to leave before noon.

The process of leaving many of the small government offices is hardly methodical, those officials say — there is no procedure whatsoever. Assistants to the president and vice president are instructed to sort personal materials from government archives, a rule they were required to follow throughout their time in the White House.

But how they do that is up to them. Boxes of personal material are generally packed, carried to cars and taken home without being scanned or examined by a third party. Public records destined for the archives are packaged, labeled and marked for shipment.

After leaving office, a former president or vice president can access presidential records from the administration, including classified documents. But that process is very forbidden. When Obama sought documents to help write his memoirs after he left the White House, his aides made precise requests to the archives. Some of the records were delivered on encrypted laptops. Others were put in sealed bags and returned in the same way.

How much Biden was involved with the disposal of documents in the days leading up to his departure from the White House in 2017 is not clear. He had a hectic schedule as he tried to squeeze in as much activity as possible.

In the last week or so, he was surprised with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. He spoke by phone with leaders from Iraq, Kosovo and Japan. And he embarked on one last overseas trip, first to Kiev, Ukraine, where he met then-President Petro Poroshenko, and from there to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of business and political titans, where he met Serbian and Kurdish leaders.

All the while the papers were sorted and packed in Washington. The hours were short, the unbreakable TBEN approaching. On that final day, Biden attended Trump’s inauguration and then headed to Union Station for a train ride back to Delaware. And boxes of documents were shipped to their destination.

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