WASHINGTON – First, the discovery. Now, the fallout.
Revelations that classified documents going back to President Joe Biden’s years as vice president have been found in his private office in Washington and a garage at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, are threatening to become a political – and possible legal – liability for the president.
Biden said he was “surprised” to learn of the discovery of the records. He had branded his predecessor, Donald Trump, "irresponsible" for storing classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
But Biden’s own handling of classified materials is now under scrutiny given the revelations that documents were stored at his private office and garage.
Here are four ways in which the documents debacle could become a headache for Biden:
‘Congress has to investigate this’
Emboldened by a new majority and armed with subpoena power, House Republicans were already gearing up for a series of investigations into the Biden family’s finances and Biden’s son Hunter.
The discovery of the classified documents opens up a new line of inquiry – one they are eager to exploit.
“I think Congress has to investigate this,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday.
“Here’s an individual that sat on ‘60 Minutes,’ that was so concerned about President Trump’s documents locked in behind, and now we find that this is a vice president keeping it for years out in the open for different locations,” McCarthy said.
The White House confirmed Monday that a number of classified documents from Biden’s years as vice president had been discovered in a box in a storage closet connected to a Washington office that Biden used prior to his presidential campaign. The documents were immediately turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, the White House said.
On Thursday, the White House acknowledged that a second batch of classified documents discovered by aides was recovered from the garage of his home in Wilmington, Delaware. The new set of documents, described as small, were returned to the National Archives and the Justice Department was alerted, said Richard Sauber, a special counsel to the president.
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Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, set things in motion for an investigation even before the White House disclosed the second batch of records had been found.
Comer sent a letter to the White House on Tuesday putting the administration on notice that his panel would be investigating what he called Biden’s “failure to return vice-presidential records – including highly classified documents.”
“The committee is concerned that President Biden has compromised sources and methods with his own mishandling of classified documents,” Comer wrote.
Another Republican-led committee is also demanding answers.
Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, requesting a classified briefing on Jan. 23 on the discovery of the records at the two Biden locations.
The presence of classified information at the two locations “could implicate the president in the mishandling, potential misuse and exposure of classified information,” Turner wrote.
Turner also questioned why Biden, as vice president, maintained custody of highly classified documents, who had access to them and for what purposes. “The question of further dissemination of these documents … must be fully examined,” he wrote.
In the Senate, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin demanded answers from Biden’s attorney, Richard Sauber, about the president’s compliance with federal records storage and archival requirements.
The GOP senators sent a letter to Sauber on Wednesday asking which documents were marked classified, why the office space was being vacated and a list of other locations where Biden may have stored records as vice president.
“In light of the recent news regarding the inappropriate storage of classified documents, the White House must immediately provide transparency relating to then-Vice President Biden’s archiving of records,” the senators said.
Justice Department’s awkward position
Questions over how Biden handled classified documents complicate matters for the Justice Department and for Garland, who must decide whether to file criminal charges against Trump for keeping classified records at his private resort.
Trump kept more than 11,000 documents at Mar-a-Lago after he left the White House and resisted returning them despite repeated requests from the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act. The FBI seized the records during a search of the estate last August for evidence of violations of the Espionage Act or obstruction of justice. About 100 of the documents seized were classified.
The exact number of classified documents discovered in Biden’s private office and garage has not been made public, but Biden’s attorneys have described the number as small. The records were turned over to the archives immediately after they were discovered, the White House says.
On Thursday, Garland appointed a special counsel, Robert Hur, to further review the handling of classified documents found at Biden’s former office space and at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Hur is a former U.S. attorney in Maryland and served as a principal associate deputy attorney general during the Trump administration.
Garland’s decision followed Republican lawmakers’ demands that he names a special counsel to investigate Biden’s handling of the records, just as he appointed a special counsel in November to oversee pending criminal investigations related to Trump.
Appearing on Fox News ahead of Garland’s announcement, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., urged the attorney general to name a special counsel to investigate Biden’s handling of the documents with the same tenacity that Garland sought to investigate Trump.
Many Americans are “disgusted with the standard that exists in America when it comes to conservatives and everybody else,” Graham said.
The final decision on whether to file criminal charges against Trump rests with Garland. The revelations about Biden’s handling of classified documents puts the attorney general in the awkward position of possibly pressing charges against Trump while, at the same time, his boss’s own actions are in question.
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'A political debating point'
From a political standpoint, questions about Biden’s handling of classified documents could not come at a more inconvenient time.
The documents debacle provides the GOP with a new line of attack to use against him during the upcoming campaign and makes it more difficult for him to turn the issue against Trump, who already has announced he will seek the Republican nomination for president.
“It politically neutralizes the Mar-a-Lago issue, and everyone knows it,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who worked as an aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and in the White House for President George W. Bush.
“Biden scolding Trump over it last year when he had documents in his garage … I mean you can’t make it up,” Jennings said. “He should’ve kept his mouth shut regarding an ongoing investigation. But now and forever he has to live with his own hypocrisy."
If the Justice Department indicts Trump and not Biden, “it raises the question of fairness and double standards,” Jennings said. “Details here don’t matter as a political debating point, even if they do as a legal matter.”
'Transparency' takes a hit
On Biden’s first day in office, his press secretary at the time, Jen Psaki, vowed that the new administration would bring “transparency and truth” back to the administration.
But the discovery of the classified documents in Biden’s private office and garage – and the administration’s refusal to answer key questions about them – is testing that transparency pledge.
The first batch of documents was discovered on Nov. 2 by Biden’s attorneys as they were cleaning out a private office he used in Washington prior to his presidential campaign. The White House, however, didn’t disclose the discovery until Monday – more than two months after they had been found. What’s more, the confirmation came only after CBS News reported the discovery.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fielded a barrage of questions about the discovery of documents during press briefings Wednesday and Thursday but offered few new details. Jean-Pierre repeated Biden’s assertion that, upon finding the records, his attorneys did what they were supposed to do by notifying the archives.
“We are committed to doing the right thing,” she insisted, emphasizing that the matter is under review by the Justice Department. “We’re doing this in the right way. And we will provide further details when it’s appropriate.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: USA TODAY'S Maureen Groppe and Joey Garrison and The Associated Press
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's classified documents debacle could become political liability