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U.S. officials offer to update congressional leaders on recovered classified files

Two sources said a plan was in the works for a closed-door briefing about the documents, including items seized in an FBI search of Trump's residence, as well as those found in the office and homes of Biden and Pence.
Image: Mar-a-Lago documents
Documents seized by the FBI from former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.Department of Justice via AP

Biden administration officials are offering top congressional leaders a briefing on classified documents found in the possession of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, two sources familiar with discussions said.

The officials had not yet scheduled a briefing, because, they said, priority goes to an intelligence briefing for those leaders about the developments and diplomatic friction with China over a suspected spy balloon spotted floating over the U.S. before one was shot down Saturday, the sources said.

The aim was to get the briefing on wayward documents done by the end of the week, the two officials said. The documents briefing would be for Congress' "Gang of Eight," the top leaders of the House and the Senate and of the congressional intelligence committees, the officials said.

The group represents the congressional leaders who have the most access to classified information and who aim to shape U.S. foreign and domestic policy as they're armed with sensitive information.

Some congressional leaders, including Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have been dissatisfied with the Justice Department's inability so far to give them more information about what the Trump documents cover.

Lawmakers argue they can't fix whatever's wrong with the country's system of classifying and storing such material until they have a better idea of what the out-of-bounds material covers. One solution: Some senators wanted the Intelligence Committee to issue subpoenas to the law enforcement arm that usually does this — the Justice Department — seeking that information.

The standoff might have been averted Sunday, however, by news that the Biden administration plans to brief congressional intelligence leaders.

Both the documents and the Chinese balloons are matters of U.S. intelligence, and a White House briefing for the House and Senate intelligence committees is required by law. The president, however, can limit information to a handful of committee leaders, as necessary.

Republicans in Congress have been clamoring for a briefing about the documents seized at Trump's home in Palm Beach, Florida, on Aug. 8 as part of the FBI's criminal probe of apparently mishandled classified material, some marked "top secret."

Agents said they seized roughly 11,000 records, about 100 of them marked classified. 

Trump has said the seizure was politically motivated and unnecessary. The National Archives and Record Administration, the items' lawful caretaker, attempted to get the documents it believed were with Trump returned at multiple times since he left office in 2021. After a round of documents from Trump's private premises was returned, federal officials determined there were more with the former president.

In June, Trump's lawyers turned over 38 other classified documents and a signed declaration stating that "all responsive documents had been turned over." The FBI disagreed and sought a warrant, prompting a search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Palm Beach residence and resort.

Trump sued over the seizure, but his lawyers dropped the case after his appeal was rejected by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The former president had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene; it declined.

He argued the seized documents belonged to him. He also claimed the FBI planted evidence to smear him. In any case, Trump said, he had the authority as president to declassify material as he saw fit, even though there was no evidence or documentation of declassification.

Under federal law, official White House papers are federal property and must be handed over to the National Archives when a president leaves office. 

Subsequently, classified items were found in Biden's office at his Penn Biden Center think tank in Washington and in his home in Delaware and were returned, as well as at Pence's Indiana residence, which were returned. In both cases, the material was found by people who work for the two former vice presidents after they decided to look proactively — to avoid the legal questions Trump has faced.

In January it was revealed the National Archives had sent a letter asking former living presidents' and vice presidents' staff members to search for materials that could be classified or the property of the government.

What the Biden administration will share in the update isn't clear, one of the sources said. The briefing plan was put together in response to bipartisan backlash because the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department did not inform congressional intelligence leaders about the documents and their importance to U.S. security.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, shared news of the White House offer to brief the Gang of Eight.

"The Biden administration had not engaged at all anyone who was in national security on the issue of threats from these documents," he said. "It took Congress to step in and say, 'We want a security threat [assessment].' And then they tried to deny giving the briefing to us from that [balloon] threat."

Turner accused the Biden administration of using its obligation to brief top congressional leaders on matters of intelligence to change the subject following Saturday's downing of a suspected spy balloon from China that was over the Carolina coast at the time.

On Sunday, the balloon's presence over the U.S. and the subsequent tensions apparent in a diplomatic back-and-forth with China were cast by Republicans as bad news for Biden. Some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., characterized the administration's actions Saturday as "leadership."

"What’s interesting is that the moment this balloon became public, I got a notice not from the administration that I’m going to get a briefing on this balloon, but they have to rush to Congress now to talk to us about Donald Trump’s documents," Turner said. "You can see they want to change the news."