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After criticism for silence, Biden White House takes questions about classified documents

Allies of the president have called on his White House to be more forthcoming as he faces an onslaught of criticism about the found documents.

WASHINGTON — The White House sought to deflect criticism that it is withholding facts about one of the biggest debacles of Joe Biden’s presidency, taking questions Tuesday about batches of classified records found in his home and an old office.

A White House official, Ian Sams, spoke to reporters Tuesday about documents dating to Biden’s vice presidency — the first time the White House has solicited questions about the classified materials. Although he offered little that advanced the public’s understanding of the matter, the mere willingness to address questions was itself a departure from the initial response.

Biden’s Democratic allies have faulted his handling of the controversy, calling on him to be more forthcoming about how the documents wound up in his Delaware home and a think tank in Washington, as NBC News reported last week.

Sams, a senior adviser to the White House counsel’s office, said in the briefing that because of an ongoing Justice Department investigation, the White House is limited in what it can responsibly disclose. Officials are trying to publicly explain what happened without compromising the federal investigation — a difficult balance to strike, Sams said. 

“I understand that there is tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly,” Sams said.

But legal experts raised questions about the White House’s reticence. At issue is whether the White House kept quiet about documents that had been stored improperly in hope of sparing Biden the political fallout from such a disclosure. A law enforcement official said the Justice Department has not instructed the White House to stay silent about the facts underlying the investigation.

NBC News legal contributor Andrew Weissmann, a top prosecutor in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of former President Donald Trump, tweeted, “There is nothing about a DOJ investigation that legally prevents someone under investigation from speaking publicly.”

The White House has still left some details unknown. In response to a question, Sams did not provide the precise number of documents that have been found.

“You know, as soon as these records were identified, they were immediately handed over to the proper authorities,” he said. “And so, in terms of contents, in terms of numbers, in terms of the specifics related to the materials itself, we just can’t address that, because these have been handed over to the proper authorities. And these will be part of the ongoing investigation by the Justice Department."

Biden’s private attorneys discovered the first tranche of classified records on Nov. 2, six days before the midterm elections, as they were clearing out an old office Biden had used in Washington from 2017 until he began his presidential campaign in 2020. They gave the material to the National Archives, which in turn notified the Justice Department, setting an investigation in motion.

News of the discovery immediately prompted comparisons to documents recovered from Trump. FBI agents searched his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, in August and seized classified material stored on the premises. Biden was among those who denounced Trump at the time. "How could anyone be that irresponsible?" he said on CBS' "60 Minutes" in September — before the documents were found in Biden's office.

Biden’s personal attorneys found more classified documents as they were searching his home in Wilmington on Dec. 20. They turned those materials over to the Justice Department. 

The White House did not acknowledge the found documents until a CBS News report this month.

Asked why White House officials waited so long, Sams said, “We want to make sure that you all and the public are served with complete information to the best of our ability as part of this ongoing inquiry.” 

Until this point, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, in her daily briefings, has largely referred questions to others or repeated that Biden is cooperating with the Justice Department inquiry.

By letting Sams speak on the record, the White House takes the pressure off of Jean-Pierre and could allow her to spend more time on the talking points important to Biden. 

But veterans of past White Houses say Biden should never have let the issue mushroom to this point. House Republicans have begun their own inquiry and will inevitably use their findings to try to weaken Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

“Everything comes out. You might as well get it out as soon as possible,” a former Obama administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak more candidly. Alternatively, “You get questions like, ‘Why did you wait three months?’”