By Jamie Gangel, Marshall Cohen, Evan Perez and Phil Mattingly, CNN
Several classified documents from President Joe Biden’s time as vice president were discovered last fall in a private office, Biden’s attorneys acknowledged Monday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland has asked the US attorney in Chicago to investigate the matter, a source familiar with the matter tells CNN, and congressional Republicans are also taking notice.
Biden’s lawyers say they found the government materials in November while closing out a Washington, DC-based office — the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement — that Biden used as part of his relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an honorary professor from 2017 to 2019.
Fewer than a dozen classified documents were found at Biden’s office, another source told CNN. It is unclear what the documents pertain to or why they were taken to Biden’s private office. Federal officeholders are required by law to relinquish official documents and classified records when their government service ends.
“The White House is cooperating with the National Archives and the Department of Justice regarding the discovery of what appear to be Obama-Biden Administration records, including a small number of documents with classified markings,” Richard Sauber, special counsel to President Biden, said in a statement. “The documents were discovered when the President’s personal attorneys were packing files housed in a locked closet to prepare to vacate office space at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C. The President periodically used this space from mid-2017 until the start of the 2020 campaign. On the day of this discovery, November 2, 2022, the White House Counsel’s Office notified the National Archives. The Archives took possession of the materials the following morning.”
“The discovery of these documents was made by the President’s attorneys,” Sauber added. “The documents were not the subject of any previous request or inquiry by the Archives. Since that discovery, the President’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives.”
CBS News first reported on the documents.
At a summit in Mexico City on Monday evening, Biden ignored shouted questions from reporters on the classified documents. Garland, also attending the summit, was seated to the President’s left.
A senior administration official traveling with Biden says the issue won’t be a distraction..
“Nothing has changed in his schedule,” the official said. “He’s focused on the summit and meeting with our closest neighbors.”
The classified materials included some top-secret files with the “sensitive compartmented information” designation, also known as SCI, which is used for highly sensitive information obtained from intelligence sources.
After the discovery, Biden’s lawyers immediately contacted the National Archives and Records Administration, which started looking into the matter, the source said. Biden’s team cooperated with NARA, which later came to view the situation as a mistake due to lack of safeguards for documents, the source said.
In November, NARA sent a referral to the Justice Department to look into the matter, a source with knowledge of the situation told CNN.
The US attorney in Chicago, John Lausch Jr., is investigating. Lausch was one of the rare Trump-era holdovers who wasn’t asked to resign after Biden’s inauguration. He was appointed by Trump in 2017 and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Illinois’ two Democratic senators said in 2021 that they wanted Lausch to remain at his top post “to conclude sensitive investigations,” though they didn’t reveal what probes he was working on.
The discovery of the materials come as special counsel Jack Smith is investigating former President Donald Trump for potentially mishandling classified records at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Federal investigators have recovered at least 325 classified documents from Trump as part of their inquiry.
Republicans are already asking questions of Biden.
“President Biden has been very critical of President Trump mistakenly taking classified documents to the residence or wherever and now it seems he may have done the same,” said GOP Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, who is set to become the House Oversight Chairman. “How ironic.”
Comer pointed out that the National Archives falls under his committee’s jurisdiction for oversight but said when they, while in the minority, sent NARA questions related to former Trump, NARA referred Republicans to the Justice Department.
“Maybe they’ll answer our questions now because it pertains to two presidents,” Comer said, adding he plans to ask the archives for more information later this week.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy didn’t say whether he believes the new GOP Congress should investigate Biden, but said the reaction to Trump holding onto classified documents has been driven by politics.
“I just think it goes to prove what they tried to do to President Trump overplayed their hand on that,” McCarthy said.
“They’ve been around even longer,” McCarthy said of Biden’s team. “President Trump had never been in office before and had just left, came out. Here’s an individual (who) spent his last 40 years in office.”
McCarthy added: “It just shows that they were trying to be political with President Trump.”
Differences between document discoveries
The Trump documents saga emerged in a different way than the Biden situation, however.
According to Biden’s attorneys, they turned over the classified materials and notified NARA as soon as they were discovered. With Trump, NARA realized that key records were missing, and NARA officials haggled with Trump’s team over the return of government documents.
Trump eventually gave 15 boxes of materials back to NARA. But federal investigators later came to correctly suspect that he was still holding onto dozens of additional classified files. So, DOJ prosecutors secured a grand jury subpoena and later got a judge’s permission to search Mar-a-Lago, to find the documents.
Ever since the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago in August — a search that uncovered dozens of additional classified files — Trump has promoted wild and unfounded allegations about his predecessors’ supposed mishandling of government records. The news about classified records turning up at Biden’s private office is sure to provide new fodder to Trump, who has already announced his 2024 presidential bid.
On Truth Social, Trump wrote: “When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House? These documents were definitely not declassified.”
Biden was critical of Trump when he saw the photograph taken by the FBI that showed an array of documents found on Trump’s property last summer.
“How that could possibly happen? How one — anyone could be that irresponsible?” Biden said. “And I thought what data was in there that may compromise sources and methods? By that I mean names of people who helped or, et cetera. … totally irresponsible.”
CNN contributor and former Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who served on the House select committee investigating January 6, said Monday that the investigation may blow some of the political headwinds away from Trump.
“The only thing that’s needed right now by the former president is to be able to throw doubt and say, ‘look, this happened, too,'” Kinzinger told Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” “So from a political perspective, this is actually probably pretty bad. Not just for the president, but really for the idea of getting justice through the political system.”
Kinzinger speculated that the investigation into Biden will come down to who on the former vice president’s staff handled the documents and whether holding onto the documents was intentional or an accident.
“There’s going to be nuances,” Kinzinger said. “I’ll tell you, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago is a very fair man, Mr. Lausch, and so I think we can trust his word.”
This story has been updated with additional details.
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CNN’s Sara Murray, Annie Grayer, Zachary Cohen, Manu Raju and Jack Forrest contributed to this report.