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White House prepares to resist Republican probes into Biden's handling of classified documents

Spokesman Ian Sams said the White House will respond to oversight inquiries "in good faith" but that House Republicans lack “credibility" on the matter.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday. Lawyers for the president found more classified documents at his home in Wilmington, Del., than previously known, the White House acknowledged on Saturday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON — A White House official attacked House Republicans on Tuesday for engaging in “political stunts” over the classified documents found in President Biden’s home and former office, declining to say whether it will cooperate with congressional investigations into the issue.

“They’re faking outrage,” White House communications officer Ian Sams told reporters, pointing to Republicans’ apparent lack of dismay after highly sensitive documents were found last summer at Mar-a-Lago, the estate where Donald Trump retired after his White House term concluded.

“When it comes to Congress we intend to review and respond to oversight inquiries in good faith,” Sams said. But “we're going to call it out when we see rampant hypocrisy,” he added, criticizing Republicans for what he called a “total lack of credibility.”

Coming one week after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the handling of the classified documents, the comments from Sams appeared to foreshadow a contentious battle with the new Republican-controlled House, with clashes likely looming over subpoenas and demands for testimony from top administration officials.

A spokeswoman for Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the new GOP chair of the House Oversight Committee, who has sent multiple letters requesting information about the documents, quickly responded, telling Yahoo News that "The Biden White House’s attempt to deflect from the issue isn’t a strategy that’s going to work."

A letter from House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer, R-Ky.
A Jan. 10 letter from House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., requesting copies of the documents found at the Biden office, communications about the discovery and a list of those who may have had access to the office where they were found. (Jon Elswick/AP)

Bruised earlier this month by a contentious speakership fight, Republicans appear rejuvenated by the prospect of investigating Biden with the same zeal with which Democrats investigated Trump.

In a Tuesday letter to White House chief of staff Ron Klain, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a ferocious Trump defender, threatened to use a “compulsory process” — a code phrase for subpoenas — if the White House doesn’t comply with requests for information from House committees.

So far, the White House has approached those requests with skepticism. Sams, who made his comments in a call arranged by the White House press office, seemed to be laying the groundwork to justify defiance, attacking Comer for engaging in “political theater” and pointing out that Comer had downplayed Trump’s mishandling of sensitive documents after arguing in an interview with Newsmax last August that the matter “didn’t amount to a hill of beans” and would not “be a priority” in terms of an investigation.

The White House has repeatedly sought to draw distinctions between Trump’s alleged refusal to turn over the documents he took to Florida and the Biden administration’s cooperation with the Justice Department. Even so, the White House has declined to answer multiple questions about the Biden documents.

Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland on Jan. 12 announcing the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the discovery of the documents. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to White House statements, a small number of documents with classified markings — reported to have been about 10 briefs on foreign countries — were first discovered on Nov. 2 in a locked closet by private attorneys for the president who were clearing out his former Capitol Hill office at the Penn Biden Center, a University of Pennsylvania think tank.

The White House has not explained why prominent (and expensive) attorneys were involved in clearing the office in the first place.

“You don’t need $1,000-an-hour lawyers to move out of an office,” said Paul Kamenar, a legal counsel with the National Legal and Policy Center, which has raised questions about $22 million in anonymous Chinese donations to the University of Pennsylvania. Those donations were made after Biden joined the university as a professor of “presidential practice” in 2018.

Citing the ongoing Justice Department probe, the White House has also declined to answer key questions about why, if the material was discovered last November, it didn’t share the news with the public before media outlets revealed it last week. The White House also hasn’t explained the chain of custody for the documents — given that the Penn Biden Center didn’t open until February 2018, more than a year after Biden left the vice president’s office — and who may have had access to them.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., talks to reporters.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chair of the House Oversight Committee, talks to reporters on Jan. 12. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The looming investigations could ensnare officials both in the White House and across the Biden administration. Senior administration officials who worked at the Penn Biden Center during Biden’s time there include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House counselor Steve Riccetti, both of whom served as a managing directors; deputy United Nations Ambassador Jeffrey Prescott; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NATO Spencer Boyer; and White House speechwriter Carlyn Reichel, who served as communications director for the center.

Asked about the documents at a press briefing last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken, like Biden, “was surprised to learn that there were any government records taken to that location.” Like many others, he appears to have been caught off guard by a series of revelations that are presenting the White House with its first major challenge of 2023.