The White House Counsel’s Office on Tuesday would not answer why it failed for more than two months to publicly disclose that classified government documents had been found in a private office in Washington, D.C., that had been used by President Joe Biden before his election in 2020.
“This is an ongoing process under review by [the Department of Justice], so we are going to be limited in what we can say at this time,” Ian Sams, spokesman for White House Counsel’s Office, told NBC News when asked why the Biden administration did not disclose earlier the discovery in November of the classified material.
“But we are committed to doing this the right way, and we will provide further details when and as appropriate,” Sams said.
Biden, during a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico, did not respond to a question from reporters about the documents, which were found by personal lawyers.
NBC News later reported Tuesday that the number of classified documents found on Nov. 2 at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement numbered fewer than a dozen.
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a bilateral meeting at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, Mexico, January 10, 2023.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Former President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that the DOJ kept quiet about the documents’ discovery in order not to affect the outcome of November’s congressional elections when his fellow Republican candidates underperformed expectations.
“Why didn’t the ‘Justice’ Department announce the Highly Classified documents found in the Biden Office before the Election?” Trump wrote in a post on his social media site, Truth Social.
Trump is under criminal investigation by the DOJ for failing to surrender government documents, including many marked classified or highly classified, when he left office.
The documents were found in Trump’s residence at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, during a raid in early August by the FBI, three months before classified records were found in the Biden office.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, on Tuesday said his committee should be briefed by administration officials about the discovery of the documents in Biden’s office.
“Our system of classification exists in order to protect our most important national security secrets, and we expect to be briefed on what happened both at Mar-a-Lago and at the Biden office as part of our constitutional oversight obligations,” Warner said.
“From what we know so far, the latter is about finding documents with markings, and turning them over, which is certainly different from a months-long effort to retain material actively being sought by the government,” Warner said. “But again, that’s why we need to be briefed.”
Also Tuesday, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to ask her to conduct an immediate review and damage assessment about the Biden documents.
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a news conference at Waldorf Astoria in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 15, 2022.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
“This discovery of classified information would put President Biden in potential violation of laws protecting national security, including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act,” Turner wrote.
“Those entrusted with access to classified information have a duty and an obligation to protect it. This issue demands a full and thorough review,” he wrote.
The discovery of the documents in connection with Biden, a Democrat, was first reported Monday afternoon by CBS News.
Soon after, a lawyer for Biden said that a “small number” of records marked classified were found Nov. 2 in a locked closet in an office at the Penn Biden Center.
That was six days before the midterm elections, when Democrats were trying to win enough seats in the House and Senate to retain majority control of both chambers of Congress. Democrats actually gained a seat in the Senate, and narrowly lost control of the House to Republicans.
Biden used the office when he was a private citizen between January 2017 and January 2021.
The documents found appear to be from the Obama administration, in which Biden had served as vice president for two terms, according to Richard Sauber, special counsel to Biden.
Sauber said on the same day the documents were discovered, the White House Counsel’s Office notified the National Archives and Records Administration of that fact.
“The Archives took possession of the materials the following morning,” Sauber said in a statement.
He also said that Biden’s personal attorneys have been cooperating with the National Archives and the DOJ “to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives.”
After the documents were discovered Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was appointed by Biden, tasked John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Illinois, with reviewing how the classified material ended up at the Penn Biden Center. Lausch is one of just two U.S. attorneys appointed by Trump to have remained in office under the Biden administration, and Garland tapped him for the assignment to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The other Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who remains in office, David Weiss of Delaware, is overseeing a criminal investigation of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, in connection with tax issues and his business dealings.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Tuesday praised President Biden and Garland for how they handled the discovery of the documents.
“I applaud President Biden and Attorney General Garland for their professional, nonpartisan handling of this situation,” Durbin said in a statement.
“Unlike former President Donald Trump, who allegedly obstructed efforts to recover hundreds of classified documents, the handful of classified documents reportedly found at the Biden Center were immediately sent to the National Archives and President Biden is allowing the Justice Department to operate free of political interference,” Durbin said.