WASHINGTON — The new year started off well for President Biden. As Republicans squabbled publicly over a House speakership election, the president and his old Senate colleague Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber’s Republican leader, embraced in front of a bridge over the Ohio River, in a gleeful show of bipartisanship.
The president announced a new immigration policy and a huge new military aid package for Ukraine. His approval rating was creeping up, just in time for an expected announcement that he would run for reelection in 2024.
Then, on Monday, came news that classified documents had been found at an office Biden used during his time as vice president at the Washington headquarters of a University of Pennsylvania think tank. On Tuesday, on a trip to Mexico City, Biden said he was “surprised” by the revelation and professed not to know what the documents contained, though reports indicated they were briefings on foreign countries.
The next day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to serve as the administration’s crisis manager. She did so in large part by referring reporters to the president’s private attorneys, who had found the documents on Nov. 2, and to the Justice Department, which is now investigating the matter.
Still, the questions kept coming, and Jean-Pierre grew visibly exasperated, caught between the president’s promise of transparency and the inability — or, critics would say, refusal — to provide transparency on this most sensitive of issues.
Reporters at Wednesday’s contentious briefing wanted to know why the classified documents were at the Penn office and what had led to their discovery. And why did the White House keep quiet until forced to acknowledge — after the initial report by CBS News on Monday — the documents’ existence?
“We’re going to respect the process,” Jean-Pierre said. “As the president said, his team handled it the right way. And we’re just not going to get ahead of the process from here.” On a dozen occasions during Wednesday’s briefing, she repeated that she would not “go beyond” what had been shared by the president or the White House counsel’s office.
Then, on Thursday, came the revelation of a second trove of documents, found in the garage of Biden’s private residence in Wilmington, Del. Hoping to talk about the day’s encouraging Consumer Price Index figures, the president was instead confronted with questions about how someone of his decades-long political experience could allow sensitive files to languish in a garage.
“By the way, my Corvette is in a locked garage. OK? So it's not like they’re sitting out in the street,” Biden responded to a reporter’s question at a White House event devoted, at least nominally, to economic news.
The reassurance failed to reassure. A statement from Biden attorney Richard Sauber that the documents had been “inadvertently misplaced” had a similar effect.
On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he would appoint a special counsel to look into the affair. In doing so, he referenced the “extraordinary circumstances” that had confronted him — and, by obvious extension, the president who had chosen him to lead the Department of Justice.
Thus arrived the first real challenge — not yet a crisis, perhaps, but certainly a problem — of 2023 for a White House that, between the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, had been desperately hoping for a comfortable stretch ahead of what is sure to be a tumultuous presidential season.
Though White House aides had been expecting House Republicans to launch investigations, the contours of those investigations — the troubled personal life and questionable professional dealings of the president’s son Hunter; the origins of the pandemic; the administration’s approach to the migrant crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border — had been well known, allowing plenty of time for preparation and countermessaging.
The revelations over the documents, on the other hand, are new. And the way those revelations are handled is garnering an inevitable comparison to last summer’s raid at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s golf club and resort in Florida, where 33 boxes containing more than 300 classified documents were recovered.
“This is what makes Americans not trust their government,” said new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Trump defender who seemed eager to distract from the unprecedented tumult that saw hard-line conservatives nearly defeat his bid to attain the position he had coveted for many years.
Many mainstream legal analysts have contended that the two scenarios are vastly different, and that while Trump appears to have intentionally removed documents, there is no evidence yet that Biden harbored any malicious, or illegal, intention.
“In the short term, it’s a very uncomfortable issue for the White House. But in the long term, it could play pretty favorably for them,” a former Justice Department spokesman told the Washington Post.
That could well turn out to be the case, but in a hyperpartisan media environment, it may not make a difference. Uncertainties and unknowns are bound to linger, since 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 browbeat his attorney general, the way Trump did when faced with unwelcome realities. Now both he and Trump find their political futures at least partly in the hands of the meticulous Garland.
The dynamics developing in Washington are likely to present Trump — who has already announced he is running for the presidency next year but has been relatively quiet in Florida — with the opening he needs to argue that the Mar-a-Lago raid was not only an exercise of political retribution but an act of blatant hypocrisy.
“Biden's priceless legal and political gift to Trump,” ran a headline in the conservative Washington Examiner that reflected conservative sentiment, which has tended toward jubilation since the initial revelations.
As for the suddenly dour White House, Thursday’s press briefing proved a case study in how difficult it will be to change the conversation when reporters know exactly what conversation they would like to have. Much as she did the day before, Jean-Pierre labored to perform what is quickly becoming the least pleasant job in official Washington.
“I’m going to leave it there,” she said after reading Sauber’s statement about the documents’ supposed misplacement.
Reporters, though, had other ideas. After all, if it was odd that documents had been found at the Penn offices, it was doubly so that they had been stored in a Delaware garage. “He was surprised that the records were found. He does not know what’s in them,” Jean-Pierre repeated, as she had done the day before. She was plainly aware that the line was unsatisfactory — but also, from the West Wing standpoint, necessary, if only to give the Justice Department the necessary space to do its work.
“I want to say the right thing from here,” Jean-Pierre said at one point. But it was becoming increasingly clear that, short of producing photocopies of the classified papers, there was no right thing the White House could say.