President Joe Biden began the new year with the political winds at his back.
Amid the chaos of a fractured Republican majority trying to elect a House speaker, his administration was making a major public effort to show how the laws bolstering his ambitious policy priorities were showing tangible results. Democrats had evaded a bruising in the midterm elections and retained a Senate majority. There were signs inflation was beginning to ease. His party had coalesced around his prospective reelection bid. And his most apparent Republican challenger had not yet gained the full-throated support of his base.
But in the span of just a week, Biden’s political trajectory has dramatically shifted.
News broke one week ago that classified documents from Biden’s time as vice president were found at his former personal office in November. And now, the White House has moved into defensive mode in the face of questions about a lack of transparency and potential legal issues involving the misplacement of the documents.
Here’s how the story has unraveled:
The news that several classified documents from Biden’s time as vice president were discovered last fall at his private office in Washington, DC, was broken by CBS News just moments after his motorcade had rolled into the National Palace in Mexico City for a bilateral meeting with the president of Mexico.
The president stayed quiet when he was asked about the documents during that meeting last Monday – where he was seated next to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who had quietly assigned the US attorney in Chicago, John Lausch Jr., to investigate the matter.
According to White House lawyers, this initial set of documents was found by the president’s personal attorneys as they were closing out the downtown DC office that Biden used as part his work with the University of Pennsylvania – which was not authorized to store classified materials.
CNN reported that after the discovery, Biden’s lawyers immediately contacted the National Archives and Records Administration, which started looking into the matter. Biden’s team cooperated with NARA. In November, NARA sent a referral to the Justice Department to look into the matter.
CNN reports the 10 classified documents included US intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics including Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, according to a source familiar with the matter. CNN reporting also shows Biden and his White House legal team do not know what’s precisely contained in the classified documents because they did not review them, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
In the evening, Biden said that he did not know that government records from his time as vice president had been taken to his private office after he had left public service.
“I was surprised to learn there were any government records that were taken there to that office,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference in Mexico City, where he was attending a trilateral summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada.
Biden emphasized that he does not know what is in the documents.
A source familiar with Lausch’s work also told CNN on Tuesday that the US attorney had already completed the initial part of his inquiry and provided his preliminary findings to Garland.
Garland chose to have Lausch conduct the Biden documents investigation because he is one of two remaining Trump-appointed US attorneys, and to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest because he wasn’t appointed by Biden, people briefed on the matter said.
The White House on Wednesday refused to answer a number of critical questions about the classified documents from Biden’s time as vice president discovered inside a private office last fall, citing an ongoing Department of Justice review.
The documents were discovered on November 2, just six days before the midterm elections, but the president’s attorneys only publicly acknowledged the discovery of the documents on January 9 – when news reports about the discovery broke.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre would not say who brought the documents into the office or whether other documents were found. Nor could she say whether an audit was underway to locate other possible documents or when the president had been briefed on the discovery of the documents.
She also could not provide assurances there weren’t any additional classified materials in any other offices.
“This is under review by the Department of Justice. I’m not going to go beyond what the president shared yesterday,” Jean-Pierre said, repeating the explanation in so many words over the course of Wednesday’s press briefing. “I’m not going to go beyond what my colleagues at the White House counsel shared with all of you as well.”
Reports broke on Wednesday night that more documents with classified marking were discovered during a search of Biden’s two residences in Delaware – located in Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington. The news reports on Wednesday did not specify where the new documents were found. They only said a “second location.”
Garland would later say that the White House counsel’s office informed the Department of Justice about the second batch of documents on December 20.
The White House confirmed the previous day’s news reports that more classified documents had been found in Wilmington. The documents were found “among personal and political papers” in Wilmington, the White House said.
Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said in a statement that lawyers for Biden had concluded their review of the Delaware homes on Wednesday evening. The documents were located in a storage area in Biden’s garage and an adjacent room. No classified documents were located in the Rehoboth property, Sauber said.
Speaking after that confirmation, Biden said the documents were in a “locked garage” and that he was cooperating fully with the Department of Justice.
“It’s not like they’re sitting out on the street,” he insisted when a reporter asked why he was storing classified material next to a sports car.
The president said he was going “to get a chance to speak on all of this, God willing, soon.”
A few hours after those remarks, Garland took the extraordinary step of appointing a special counsel to take over the investigation. The attorney general’s announcement significantly escalated the existing inquiry.
The special counsel, Robert Hur, was nominated to be US attorney in Maryland by then-President Donald Trump in 2017 and served in the role until his resignation in 2021.
CNN also reported on Thursday that Kathy Chung, the deputy director of protocol at the Pentagon, was interviewed as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into the handling of the documents. Chung previously worked as Biden’s executive assistant while he was vice president.
The White House announced on Saturday that Biden’s aides on Thursday found five additional pages of classified material at his residence in Wilmington – on the same day a special counsel was appointed to investigate the matter.
The discovery came just hours after Sauber’s statement specifically citing the discovery of a single document.
That disclosure marked the third in a week, and second time initial information provided was later proven to be incomplete. In fact, Sauber had said the review of Biden’s homes was complete on Wednesday night even though the additional five pages were discovered on Thursday evening.
The new pages were found when a White House lawyer went to Wilmington to facilitate the transfer of the classified document found at Biden’s home to Justice Department officials, Sauber said.
Biden’s personal attorney also sought to explain Saturday why he and other members of Biden’s team haven’t been fully forthcoming about the discoveries.
“The president’s personal attorneys have attempted to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity,” Bob Bauer said in a statement. “These considerations require avoiding the public release of detail relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.”
Bauer added that releasing more detail about the case could “complicate the ability of authorities conducting the review to obtain information readily, and in an uncompromised form.”
The White House counsel’s office also disclosed on Monday there are no visitors logs that track guests who come and go at Biden’s home in Wilmington.
House Republicans have been demanding that the White House turn over all information related to the documents, including any visitors logs to Biden’s private residence and who might have had access to his private office in Washington.
“Like every President across decades of modern history, his personal residence is personal,” the counsel’s office said in a statement Monday morning. “But upon taking office, President Biden restored the norm and tradition of keeping White House visitors logs, including publishing them regularly, after the previous administration ended them.”