The White House faced a new barrage of criticism Tuesday about the weekend announcement that lawyers found a third tranche of classified documents at the president’s private home.
Administration officials emphasized they are being cooperative with investigators and transparent with the public and are drawing a contrast between their behavior and that of former President Donald Trump.
However, in a half-hour call with reporters, White House spokesperson Ian Sams declined to offer any details beyond the few the administration already has reported about the unknown number of documents found in private offices and homes used by President Joe Biden.
And while White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre fielded multiple questions on the issue, she stressed repeatedly that the White House would not provide too many details while an investigation was underway. Last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the potential mishandling of classified documents by Biden.
“While we may be constrained from being able to provide a ton of facts as this investigation is ongoing, we’re being very forthright that we’re being cooperative with the Justice Department,” said Sams, special assistant to the president and senior adviser to the White House counsel’s office. “And that’s such a stark contrast. I mean, you listen to these House Republicans … they’re faking outrage about disclosure and transparency.”
On Saturday, White House lawyer Richard Sauber said in a statement that officials found six pages’ worth of classified documents in Biden’s private library at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. He said those documents were immediately turned over to the Justice Department.
The latest discovery adds to a trove found in December in the garage of Biden’s Wilmington home, and another set found in November in an office in Washington that he used.
Biden said after the first discovery was announced last week that he was “surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office.”
“But I don’t know what’s in the documents,” he added.
Previously, the Justice Department retrieved about 300 documents at various levels of classification from Trump’s Florida home.
In Tuesday’s call with reporters, the White House did not give comprehensive responses to questions about why they delayed by days or weeks in announcing the document discoveries, what the parameters were for the searches, whether they are done searching, what’s in the documents themselves and how many there are, and whether Biden would sit for an interview with the special counsel if he is asked.
Trump, on his social media network, sought to contrast his case with Biden’s, saying that he “did NOTHING wrong [and] have the right as President to “declassify.”
Trump added that he kept the documents securely and that “Mar-a-Lago is a highly secured facility, with Security Cameras all over the place, and watched over by staff & our great Secret Service. I have INFO on everyone!”
Biden’s Republican critics have promised swift action.
“President Biden’s three strikes against transparency will be met with swift congressional oversight,” James Comer, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, said in a statement on Saturday. “The White House, the National Archives, and the Justice Department failed to promptly inform Congress and the American people about mishandled classified documents from Joe Biden’s time as vice president.”
When asked if the White House would cooperate with Congress, Sams said, “We’re reviewing those letters. We’ll make a determination about our response in due course. But of course, we’re going to call it out when we see rampant hypocrisy that shows a total lack of credibility when it comes to these requests.”
Walter Shaub, a senior ethics fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, told VOA via email that while the administration was right to promptly inform Justice Department officials after they found the documents, “things might have come out better for the Biden White House if they had done a better job [of]] communicating with the public. At a minimum, they should have been forthcoming with all relevant details when the media first asked about President Biden’s retention of the records.”
“It may be understandable that the administration didn’t alert the public immediately” when they first discovered the documents, he said, but “at some point, they owed the public information. It would have been nice if the administration made an announcement before the media learned that President Biden had discovered classified records in his possession. … That was a breach of trust with the public.”
Jean-Pierre questioned whether the public was preoccupied with what is turning out to be a political headache for the Biden administration, which faces stiff opposition in the new Congress.
“That’s for the American people to decide, right?” she said.
Time and tension
The White House said the Biden administration is aware of its responsibility to inform the public, but it noted there are legal considerations.
“We understand that there’s a tension between the need to be cooperative with an ongoing DoJ investigation and rightful demands for additional public information,” Sams said.
Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department official and former White House staffer, said that often happens in legal matters.
“It is not common for the public to learn about investigations at the investigation stage,” said Strauss, now a managing director at Kroll, a risk and financial advisory solutions firm.
Strauss said the outcome is not inevitable — some of the found documents, which date from Biden’s time as vice president, might no longer be classified.
The one thing that is sure, he said, is that this will take time.
“Right now, I suspect that the president’s lawyers are conducting a very thorough investigation on their own to try to figure out what’s happened, and they probably don’t want to share information until they’ve definitively established what happened and what did not,” he said. “And that’s not a short process in almost any criminal case, or civil case.”
Until this is resolved, questions will continue to hit the White House.
“You guys can ask me this 100 times, 200 times if you wish,” Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday, after fielding several questions on the issue. ”I’m going to keep saying the same thing. I hear your question. It’s been asked. And answered. It’s been noted. And we’re just going to try to move on here.”