WASHINGTON – The new year started well for President Biden. As Republicans publicly bickered over the election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President and his longtime Senate colleague Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader of the House, embraced in front of a bridge over the Ohio River in a merry show of duality.
The president announced a new immigration policy and a massive new military aid package for Ukraine. His approval rating crept up just in time for an anticipated announcement that he would run for re-election in 2024.
Then, on Monday, news came that classified documents had been found in an office Biden used during his time as vice president at the Washington headquarters of a University of Pennsylvania think tank. On a trip to Mexico City on Tuesday, Biden said he was “surprised” by the revelation and claimed not to know what the documents contained, though reports indicated they were briefings about foreign countries.
The next day, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to serve as the government’s crisis manager. She did so largely by referring reporters to the president’s private attorneys, who found the documents on Nov. 2, and to the Justice Department, which is now investigating the case.
Still, the questions kept coming, and Jean-Pierre grew visibly agitated, caught between the president’s promise of transparency and the inability — or, critics would say, refusal — to provide transparency on this most sensitive issue.
Reporters at Wednesday’s controversial briefing wanted to know why the classified documents were in the Penn office and what led to their discovery. And why did the White House remain silent until it was forced — after the first TBEN News report on Monday — to acknowledge the existence of the documents?
“We are going to respect the process,” said Jean-Pierre. “As the president said, his team handled it the right way. And from here we just don’t get ahead of the process.” On a dozen occasions during Wednesday’s briefing, she reiterated that she would go no further than what was shared by the president or the office of White House counsel.
Then, on Thursday, came the unveiling of a second trove of documents found in the garage of Biden’s private residence in Wilmington, Del. Hoping to talk about that day’s encouraging consumer price indices, the president was instead faced with questions about how one of his decades of political experience could cause sensitive files to languish in a garage.
“By the way, my Corvette is in a locked garage. OKAY? So it’s not like they’re sitting on the street,” Biden responded to a reporter’s question at a White House event devoted, at least nominally, to economic news.
The reassurance could not reassure. A pronunciation of Biden attorney Richard Sauber that the documents were “accidentally mislaid” had a similar effect.
On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he would appoint special counsel to investigate the case. In doing so, he referred to the “extraordinary circumstances” he had faced – and, by extension, the president who had chosen him to head the Justice Department.
Thus came the first real challenge — perhaps not yet a crisis, but certainly a problem — of 2023 for a White House that, between the coronavirus pandemic and war in Ukraine, had desperately hoped for a comfortable stretch ahead of what is sure to be a tumultuous presidential become season.
While White House aides had expected House Republicans to launch investigations, the outlines of those investigations are: the troubled personal life and questionable professional dealings of the president’s son, Hunter; the origin of the pandemic; the government’s handling of the migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border was widely known, allowing ample time for preparation and counter-reports.
The revelations about the documents, on the other hand, are new. And the way those revelations are being handled leads to an inevitable comparison with last summer’s raid on Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Florida golf club and resort, where 33 boxes containing more than 300 secret documents were found. recovered.
“This is what makes Americans distrust their government,” said the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthya Trump defender who seemed eager to divert attention from the unprecedented uproar in which hard-line conservatives all but thwarted his attempt to achieve the position he had coveted for years.
Many mainstream legal analysts have argued that the two scenarios are vastly different, and that while Trump appears to have deliberately removed documents, there is no evidence yet that Biden harbored any malicious or illegal intent.
“In the short term, it’s a very uncomfortable issue for the White House. But in the long run, it could be quite beneficial for them,” a former Justice Department spokesman told the Washington Post.
That might turn out to be the case, but in a hyperpartisan media environment it might not make a difference. Uncertainties and unknowns will remain as the documents in question are classified. And the Department of Justice, as a rule, does not discuss ongoing investigations.
Nor is an institutionalist like Biden likely to frighten his attorney general, as Trump did when faced with undesirable realities. Now both he and Trump find their political futures, at least in part, in the hands of the scrupulous Garland.
The dynamics developing in Washington will likely provide Trump — who has already announced his candidacy for president next year but has been relatively quiet in Florida — the opening he needs to argue that the Mar-a-Lago raid not just a political retaliation, but an act of blatant hypocrisy.
“Biden’s priceless legal and political gift to Trump,” headlined the conservative Washington Examiner, reflecting conservative sentiment, which has tended towards jubilation since the first revelations.
As for the suddenly dour White House, Thursday’s press briefing proved a case study of how difficult it will be to change the conversation once reporters know exactly what conversation they want to have. Just like the day before, Jean-Pierre was working on what is fast becoming the least enjoyable job in official Washington.
“I’ll leave it at that,” said Jean-Pierre after reading Sauber’s statement about the alleged misplacement of the documents.
However, reporters had other ideas. If it was strange that documents had been found in Penn’s offices, it was doubly strange that they had been stored in a garage in Delaware. “He was surprised that the data was found. He doesn’t know what’s in it,’ repeated Jean-Pierre, as she had done the day before. She was well aware that the line was unsatisfactory, but also, from the West Wing’s point of view, necessary, if only to give the Justice Department the necessary leeway to do its job.
“I want to say the right thing from here,” said Jean-Pierre at one point. But it was becoming increasingly clear that beyond making photocopies of the classified documents, the White House had nothing right to say.