Democratic allies are voicing frustration with White House officials’ tight-lipped approach to the classified documents found in an office and residence of President Joe Biden, calling on the administration to be more forthcoming in its handling of the issue.
The uproar over the documents has quickly distracted from the administration's policy agenda and could also influence the timing of Biden announcing his 2024 plans. Some Democrats now suggest that he wait and let the controversy wane before launching a re-election bid.
Until then, Biden needs to more fully explain how and why classified records dating back to his vice presidency wound up in his garage and a private office in Washington, D.C., according to Democratic strategists, lawmakers and even administration officials.
“He’s got to say, ‘I messed up, I apologize,’” said Lanny Davis, who handled various investigations as a lawyer in the Clinton White House.
“With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s not too late for President Biden to own up to mishandling this,” said Davis, who now works in crisis management. “Own it!”
The White House has said Biden’s attorneys first discovered a "small number" of classified records stemming from his vice presidency in a locked closet on Nov. 2 — six days before the midterm elections — as they vacated office space at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington. One of the documents was marked Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, the highest level of classification in the U.S. government, NBC News has learned.
The following day, Biden’s representatives gave the material to the National Archives, which in turn notified the Justice Department, leading to a special counsel investigation into whether any laws had been broken.
The White House didn’t publicly confirm that documents had been found until Monday, when CBS News reported that a review was underway.
A statement from a White House lawyer, Richard Sauber, mentioned only classified material found at the center. NBC News reported Wednesday that Biden aides had discovered an additional batch of classified records — a fact not mentioned in the White House’s initial acknowledgment. A new statement from Sauber on Thursday revealed that records had also been found in Biden’s garage in Wilmington, Delaware, and in one of the home’s adjacent rooms.
“I think it was a misstep,” said a Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely. “If you’re going to be transparent, you have to be forthcoming with what you know and when you know it. When you start trickling out information that you knew already, it starts to raise more flags. People start wondering, ‘When is the next shoe going to drop?’”
One Democratic member of Congress said he has heard nothing from White House officials about what happened and is at a loss to explain it to constituents.
“I presume they’re trying to line up the facts and give us guidance,” the lawmaker said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “But we’re also hanging out here.”
The White House declined to comment for this article.
One person familiar with the White House’s thinking said: “It’s easy from the outside to opine how the White House could and should have done this, but the people saying that probably not now nor ever have they been subject to a special counsel investigation or U.S. attorney review.”
Peppered with questions about the records in her daily briefings, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has pointed to past statements or referred reporters to other government officials. Asked by NBC News on Friday why the administration waited to publicly disclose the documents’ discovery until reporters learned of them, Jean-Pierre said: “Because it’s an ongoing process. Because, again, it’s an ongoing process. There is a process here. The Department of Justice is independent. We respect that process.”
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director in the Obama White House, suggested that any White House press secretary in this position would be in a tough spot in terms of what can be disclosed in the briefing room.
"In an ongoing investigation where law enforcement is involved, the White House has to be very careful about what information it puts in the public domain. If you are revealing details in real time, before the White House and or [the Justice Department] has completed its investigation, you could be accused of 'changing your story' or trying to get ahead of the special counsel and litigating the case in the court of public opinion before the special counsel has even had a chance to start his investigation. There could be damaging long-term consequences for such actions."
Still, press secretaries aren't powerless. They can approach colleagues and insist on answers to share with the press and the public.
“You can’t count the number of times I threatened to resign if we didn’t allow such and such to be opened up to the public,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary in the Clinton White House during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
One step Biden should consider is naming a dedicated person to field questions about the documents so that the White House isn’t bogged down on a daily basis by a controversy that distracts from his policy goals, Democratic strategists said.
“The White House should consider appointing a separate spokesperson to handle all questions related to this matter,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who also served in the Clinton White House. “If someone else is handling questions related to that matter, you still have a press briefing where you’re able to communicate the issues of the day that you’re trying to get out.”
Some White House officials are frustrated that the president is now saddled with a special counsel investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter. A criminal investigation has been underway for months over former President Donald Trump’s possession of classified records at his Mar-a-Lago home. The view of some Biden aides is that, unlike Trump, Biden fully cooperated with authorities and yet Americans may conclude that both men mishandled records and are at fault, the person said.
Since the controversy erupted this week, Biden allies have been pressing the point that the Trump and Biden cases are markedly different. Their hope is that voters will see the distinction in the two: Biden returned the documents once they were discovered, while Trump withheld them, triggering a search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago in August.
“The differences are pretty straightforward,” said Brad Woodhouse, senior adviser to the Congressional Integrity Project, which focuses on exposing Republican investigations of the Biden administration and Democrats. The sharpest contrast, he said, was highlighted in one of Sauber’s siatements: “We are fully cooperating.”