Sunday, 5 Feb 2023

Why files found in Biden's garage could wreck his Presidency

Less than a year after Trump had classified documents seized at Mar-a-Lago TOM LEONARD explains why top-secret files found in Joe Biden’s garage could wreck his Presidency

Joe Biden didn’t hold back when asked for his first thoughts after seeing a photo of top secret White House documents from his predecessor’s administration stashed away at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.

‘How that could possibly happen, how anyone could be that irresponsible.’ President Biden solemnly told CBS News a year ago. ‘And I thought: what data was in there that may compromise sources and methods . . . Just totally irresponsible.’

To say he might now be regretting his strong words may be the understatement of the year as far as Washington D.C. is concerned. Mr Biden was plunged into what may become the most serious crisis of his presidency on Thursday when a special counsel was named to investigate how two batches of classified documents from his time as vice president were found at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at an unsecured office in the capital.

Some of the secret papers — which reportedly include intelligence briefings on Iran, Ukraine and the UK — were even found next to his car in his garage.

Joe Biden didn’t hold back when asked for his first thoughts after seeing a photo of top secret White House documents from his predecessor’s administration stashed away at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Pictured: Biden with his 1967 Corvette Stingray

As the Wall Street Journal wryly observed: ‘Whatever gods are scripting America’s political drama these days, they sure do have a sense of humour.’

Even Biden’s allies in the U.S. media had yesterday to concede that he is in a tight spot, compounding the original mess-up by then apparently trying to cover it up from the public.

As CNN reported that ‘scandal fever grips the White House’, Democrat congressman Hank Johnson illustrated his party’s desperation to find an explanation by suggesting that the documents could have been planted. ‘Things can be planted in places and then discovered conveniently,’ he told Fox News.

Robert Hur, a former senior official in the Justice Department during the Trump presidency, will lead the investigation which could mean dozens of interviews and searches of other Biden properties.

Police have reportedly already quizzed several of Mr Biden’s former aides.

Merrick Garland, Mr Biden’s attorney-general, said that the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ of the situation — namely investigating a sitting President — required him to take the extra step of appointing an independent prosecutor.

Mr Garland has another special counsel, Jack Smith, investigating Mr Trump for allegedly transferring hundreds of classified files to his Florida home after vacating the White House in 2021.

While the former President faces possible criminal charges, he has dismissed the investigation, with characteristic chutzpah, as a political smear campaign.

As with the Trump documents, both sets of the ones found in Mr Biden’s possession should have been handed over to the U.S. National Archives when he stepped down as vice president at the end of the Obama administration in 2017.

Democrats and sympathetic media outlets have been quick to point out the differences between the Trump and Biden cases — Trump took away far more documents and argued for months about returning them — but many Americans are likely to feel that’s not really the point.

To them, this may amount to shameless hypocrisy on Biden’s part or — if it’s true, as sources reportedly insist, that he ‘didn’t know the documents were there’ — rank incompetence from an 80-year-old leader seen as increasingly doddery.

Either way, it’s a major blow to his credibility and the controversy threatens to hobble his legislative agenda, overshadow his campaign if — as expected — he stands for re-election in 2024, and ruin any chances of bringing Trump to book over his own stash of classified documents.

Some of the secret papers — which reportedly include intelligence briefings on Iran, Ukraine and the UK — were even found next to his car in his garage (pictured)

Furthermore, this is a President with extensive foreign policy experience who has always portrayed himself as a skilled and experienced national security expert, a safe pair of hands when it comes to diplomatic and intelligence matters.

But the revelation that his personal lawyers sat on this bombshell information after learning about it before the crucial midterm elections in November has only added to the whiff of scandal surrounding the Biden camp.

On Monday, CBS broke the news that on November 2, six days before the midterms — which decided control of both houses of Congress — those lawyers found a ‘small number’ of classified documents in a locked storage closet while they were moving out of the offices of a thinktank, the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy And Global Engagement in Washington D.C.

Mr Biden had periodically used the office between 2017, when he stopped being vice president, and 2019, when he began his presidential campaign.

According to CNN, they included ‘intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics including Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom’. Some of them were designated as ‘sensitive compartmented information’, a security classification that is even higher than ‘Top Secret’.

Mr Biden says their discovery ‘surprised’ him and he also insists he didn’t know what was in them. He says they were turned over to the National Archives as soon as they were found.

Two days after they came to light, the National Archives informed the U.S. Department of Justice of their discovery.

On November 9, a day after the midterms, the FBI followed protocol and conducted an assessment of whether the classified information had been illegally mishandled.

Five days later, on November 14, the Justice Department assigned U.S. Attorney John Lausch to investigate the matter.

Then, more than a month later on December 20, Biden’s lawyers told Mr Lausch that a second small batch of classified documents from the Obama-Biden administration had been found in the President’s garage. They were duly handed over to the FBI.

And yet even Democrat supporters have questioned why the White House didn’t disclose this second cache this week when it spoke about the initial cache of papers found in the office.

On January 5 — Thursday last week — Mr Lausch advised U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland that a special counsel should be appointed to conduct a further investigation of Mr Biden’s handling of the files. Mr Garland agreed and appointed Mr Hur.

Since then, the news has only been bad for a Biden White House which had just started to look like it might be bouncing back.

The President himself has hardly been impressive on the matter. On Thursday morning, Mr Biden held an event to announce inflation was falling and consumer confidence rising.

He was about to take the stage when his lawyers announced that the second batch of classified papers had been found in his Delaware home — most of them in the garage and a single document in an adjoining room. Instead of facing questions about the economy, Mr Biden found himself being asked why on earth classified papers had been stored next to his beloved 1967 Corvette Stingray.

‘My Corvette is in a locked garage, OK? So, it’s not like they’re sitting out in the street,’ said Mr Biden — as if that distinction made it all OK. ‘But as I said earlier this week, people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously. I also said we’re co-operating fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review.’

He promised a further update soon — ‘God willing’ — only for his Attorney General to announce two hours later the appointment of Mr Hur as special counsel, a decision that will probably severely limit what more the President can say.

White House lawyer Richard Sauber said Mr Biden has cooperated fully with the Justice Department’s review and will continue to do so.

‘We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the President and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake,’ he said.

Mr Biden was plunged into what may become the most serious crisis of his presidency on Thursday when a special counsel was named to investigate how two batches of classified documents from his time as vice president were found at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at an unsecured office in the capital 

However, Mr Biden’s press secretary has refused to say if the President will agree to be interviewed by investigators or why the White House didn’t initially reveal that a second batch of documents had been found.

The affair represents an abrupt change in the political weather in the U.S.

Only a few days ago, Republicans were almost throwing punches at each other in the House of Representatives (which they now control) as it took 15 ballots before Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy was elected House Speaker.

Now they suddenly have something to unite behind, while the Democrats, who had been basking in midterm results that were not nearly so bad as forecast and rising approval ratings for Mr Biden, are on the back foot once again.

Some Republicans have even demanded Mr Biden be investigated for espionage. Mr McCarthy has pointedly questioned why it had taken so long to announce the discovery of Mr Biden’s classified documents.

‘They knew this had happened to President Biden before the (U.S. midterm) election, but they kept it a secret from the American public,’ he said.

Everyone, of course, has at the back of their mind what happened in the 2016 presidential election when, 11 days before the vote, FBI chief James Comey told Congress his organisation was investigating newly discovered emails sent by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State from an unauthorised private server in her home.

The FBI cleared Mrs Clinton despite the fact that an inspection of her private server revealed that it had handled classified material. Mrs Clinton later claimed the announcement of the investigation was enough to alienate many voters and was a major factor in why she lost the election to Donald Trump.

Americans also want to know why the Biden secret documents brouhaha is any different from the Trump secret documents controversy. On a basic level, they are similar as both involved classified documents being retained illegally — under the Presidential Records Act — after the two men left office.

But there, some insist, the similarities end as the cases differ in terms of the volume of documentation that was removed, how it came to light and how each President responded.

The FBI said it removed about 11,000 documents found in a storage room and an office while conducting an extraordinary court-authorised raid on Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s official main residence in Palm Beach, in August.

More than 325 classified files, including some marked ‘Secret’ or ‘Top Secret’ — were among them. Some of the documents were found in a locked closet but others were in Mr Trump’s desk, it’s alleged. These included highly sensitive material on China and Iran, say sources.

Mr Trump reportedly took records from the Oval Office to his White House residence on occasions while President and, when he moved out, they became mixed up with his belongings and shipped to Florida.

Investigators are looking at whether the ex-President broke federal law by obstructing the document recovery process or destroying government materials. He has denied any wrongdoing.

It’s not yet known, on the other hand, how classified papers ended up in Mr Biden’s office and garage and his aides have offered no explanation.

Where the two cases diverge radically, it’s claimed, is in what happened when the two men realised they illegally had these papers.

While Mr Biden’s camp said they had never been asked to return the documents but ensured they were given back as soon as they found them, the documents at Chateau Trump were discovered missing by the National Archives in spring 2021.

Mr Trump and his aides then allegedly spent months dragging their feet over official requests for their return, even — court papers suggest — being caught on security camera removing them from the storage room at Mar-a-Lago after the order to return them was issued.

There were also far more classified papers in the Trump haul — at least 325 compared to, according to CBS News, just ten in the Biden collections.

Technically, both politicians could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act if, through ‘gross negligence’, they allowed national security papers to be removed from their proper place of custody. But legal experts say, in practice, they would need to have done this almost intentionally to be convicted.

Mr Trump could also be prosecuted under the Act for failing to hand over a national security secret to an official demanding it.

And yet conservatives, and Trump himself, insist that he had the authority as President to declassify documents on his own while Mr Biden — who wasn’t then U.S. leader — didn’t. (Mr Trump has insisted he declassified everything at Mar-a-Lago although he’s provided no evidence to support this claim.)

It’s a huge legal mess but the fact that Mr Biden is also now embroiled in it makes one thing certain. If the justice system comes down hard on Mr Trump, who has long claimed it is biased against him, but not Mr Biden, there will be an almighty row.

And — given that Trump has also announced he’ll run for President in 2024 — one big enough to cast a shadow over whoever ends up facing off in next year’s election.

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