The White House is once again struggling with its messaging, this time on the discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president, where administration officials have sought to minimize the damage due to the revelation but have struggled to address it cohesively.
Democrats, meanwhile, have had scattered reactions, ranging from praising the Biden administration over its cooperation with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and National Archives to suggesting a congressional review of the materials over national security concerns. Others have acknowledged what a political headache it has become for the president.
The disjointed responses are in part a reflection of mixed messaging by the White House, including when it prematurely told reporters last week that a search of classified documents potentially kept by Biden was “complete” before the administration said days later that more documents were found.
Officials have been adamant that they are limited in how much they can say about the discovery of the documents, what’s in them and when the president was informed of the situation, citing an ongoing Justice Department investigation and the appointment of a special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was chosen by Biden to lead the agency.
“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. And so we’re trying to strike that balance and being as clear as we can,” Ian Sams, a White House spokesperson for investigations, told reporters on Tuesday.
Addressing the matter to the public has largely been left to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who has at times sparred with reporters over questions about why the White House didn’t reveal the discovery when it was made in November, when Biden learned of it and whether any other searches were underway.
On Thursday, Jean-Pierre said that “you should assume that it’s been completed, yes” in response to a question about a second set of documents that turned up at Biden’s home in Delaware, including in his garage. But on Saturday, the White House acknowledged that five more classified documents had been found at Biden’s home — the first time it was the administration, not a news report, that revealed a discovery.
When questioned on Tuesday over whether she’s being directed to not be forthcoming, Jean-Pierre said that she knew as much as the press did at the end of last week, before the next discovery was revealed on Saturday.
She also pushed back when asked if she’s upset that she came out to the briefing on Friday with incomplete and inaccurate information.
“Well, what I’m concerned about is making sure that we do not politically interfere in the Department of Justice, that we continue to be consistent over the last two years. And that is continue to refer you all when it comes to an ongoing process,” she said.
Jean-Pierre also added that she and other members of the press office found out about the documents in Biden’s office in Washington in November when CBS broke the news last week. The press secretary has also faced questions about whether the White House would have disclosed the findings at all if not for the CBS report.
Former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC on Sunday that one of the biggest questions the White House has to answer is who decided not to tell the public last year when Biden’s attorneys found the materials.
“The political problem is the one that nobody has talked about yet, which is, why did they wait to tell us? I mean, they knew this before midterms,” Christie said. “If you’re Joe Biden, who says, ‘I must be transparent. Donald Trump’s not. He is irresponsible for having these in his home.’ And meanwhile now he knows he’s got a bunch in his home.”
“I think the real interesting part of the special counsel investigation, more interesting than the documents themselves … will be, who made that decision? Did Ron Klain make that decision?” Christie said in reference to Biden’s chief of staff, one of the president’s closest longtime aides and confidants.
But Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, said it has likely been frustrating for the White House press office to be limited in what it can share with the public. He disputed that the White House’s messaging has made the situation worse, arguing many officials in the building are likely dealing with the same uncertainties as the press.
“This happens where the information comes out slowly, and there’s always this idea that somehow the magical communications person could have made this all go away by perfectly packaging the info so nobody would follow up,” Bennett said. “I don’t think that’s real.”
There were some signs the White House was starting to get its messaging strategy in order roughly a week after the story first broke.
Bob Bauer, a personal attorney for the president, issued a lengthy statement on Saturday that included a detailed timeline of events and offered an explanation for why the White House may be limited in what it can say. Bauer cited a desire to avoid offering incomplete information, and he noted that frequent disclosures that reveal details about witnesses or contents of the documents could undermine the DOJ investigation.
And the White House organized a press call for reporters on Tuesday to field questions from reporters amid intense criticism that they had not been forthcoming with the public about each new discovery of classified documents — and took the opportunity to take a shot at the GOP.
“At the same time that the president and his team have been fully cooperating, acting responsibly and ensuring that this is handled properly, you’ve seen something far different emerging among elected Republicans. What are they doing? They’ve decided that it’s time for more political stunts and theater,” Sams said.
The White House specifically targeted new House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and his response to the discovery of classified documents, comparing his response to the FBI seizing classified documents from former President Trump’s Florida home.
Sams highlighted that Comer said investigating Trump’s handling of documents won’t be a priority for Republicans but has said that his committee will be investigating Biden’s handling of documents.
“He’s on TV openly admitting that he doesn’t care about the underlying issue and doesn’t even think that President Biden has knowledge about it,” Sams said, addressing an interview Comer gave to CNN over the weekend.
The document controversy has overshadowed what the White House hoped would be an opportunity to contrast Biden’s accomplishments during his first two years in office with some of the dysfunction over the Speakership that was displayed by the new House Republican majority.
Instead, recent press briefings have been dominated by questions about who knew what and when they were informed, and Democrats who appeared on Sunday shows were pressed for their assessment of the document discoveries.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), a longtime leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and its former chairman, said on Sunday that the administration will need to answer questions about why the discovery on Nov. 2 wasn’t revealed when it happened.
“I think the administration will need to answer that question. I’m going to reserve judgment until they do,” he told ABC, adding though that the way the Biden team handled finding documents was “a very sharp contrast” to Trump’s handling of them.
Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is retiring in 2024, had a different take on the situation.
“Well, it’s certainly embarrassing. Right?” she told NBC. “I mean, it’s embarrassing that you would find a small number of documents, certainly not on purpose.”