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Inside a White House in the dark on Biden’s classified documents crisis

<i>Andrew Harnik/AP</i><br/>President Joe Biden arrives to speak about the economy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus on January 12 in Washington.
Andrew Harnik
Andrew Harnik/AP
President Joe Biden arrives to speak about the economy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus on January 12 in Washington.

By MJ Lee, Kevin Liptak and Jeremy Diamond, CNN

The discovery of classified documents at President Joe Biden’s private office in Washington, DC — and subsequently his home in Wilmington, Delaware — has cast a shadow over the White House in recent days, as some of the president’s closest allies and senior officials have been left entirely in the dark on a political crisis enveloping the White House.

Then on Thursday afternoon came another bombshell development: The appointment of a special counsel to oversee the investigation.

People inside and close to the White House have been watching the unfolding story with concern and trepidation since Monday — privately grousing that it was far from ideal and that they felt they had no choice but to simply wait, like everyone else, to see what new information would surface about the Justice Department’s review into the matter.

In particular, Biden allies had been monitoring the Justice Department closely all week for signs Attorney General Merrick Garland would appoint a special counsel. With Thursday’s announcement tapping former US Attorney Robert Hur to serve in that role, aides now acknowledge that the coming weeks or months will present a new level of challenge as they work to promote Biden’s agenda in anticipation of an expected announcement he is seeking reelection.

The circle of advisers aware of the situation surrounding misplaced classified documents was kept extraordinarily tight in the two months between the discovery of the initial documents at Biden’s Washington office and Monday night, when the matter emerged publicly for the first time.

Those kept informed included a few top White House advisers and Biden’s personal attorneys, most of whom have long histories with the president, according to people familiar with the matter. There was not a broad discussion inside the White House of how to handle the matter after the initial discovery of documents or during the weeks afterward.

That left many officials uncertain whether additional disclosures were coming, and a certain degree of frustration at what seemed to be an information blackout.

All of this has also prompted a bunker mentality to set in inside the White House, with press aides answering questions with tightly scripted referrals to the White House counsel’s office. Some senior White House officials who were not among the small circle of advisers with knowledge of the matter sought to keep their distance from the politically and legally thorny revelations.

“I’m not going to get into this at all,” one senior official said.

“I can’t,” said another.

The silence reflected a keen sense of the legal and political pitfalls of the revelations and an uncertainty about what else could emerge.

Earlier on Thursday, there had appeared to be a momentary sense of relief when the White House counsel’s office released a new statement saying that Biden’s lawyers had finished its search of two additional locations where they believed files from Biden’s time as vice president could have ended up — his Wilmington residence and his Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home.

According to Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, lawyers discovered a “small number” of additional classified documents at Biden’s Wilmington home and no documents were found at Biden’s Rehoboth residence.

“The lawyers completed that review last night,” Sauber said.

Those words provided a small measure of hope to some Biden allies that perhaps that statement could mark a turning point in the classified documents saga.

But that moment did not last long. Hours later, Garland announced the appointment of a special counsel, saying he believed the “extraordinary circumstances” required such a move.

“This appointment underscores for the public the department’s commitment to independence and accountability, and particularly sensitive matters and to making decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law,” Garland said.

Garland laid out for the first time a chronology of dates spanning back to early November, when the National Archives first informed the Justice Department that documents had been found at the Penn-Biden Center in Washington. That timeline included this detail, which immediately raised eyebrows among Biden allies: On December 20, Biden lawyers informed the Justice Department that additional classified documents had been found inside the garage of president’s Wilmington residence.

This meant that when Sauber released his first statement on Monday night, confirming that a first batch of classified documents had been found at Biden’s office, the president’s lawyers had also been aware of a second group of classified documents found at a separate location. And yet, that first public statement had made no mention of the totality of what had been discovered.

“The drip, drip, drip” manner in which the White House counsel’s office has publicly addressed the situation presents a unique — and frustrating — challenge, one person close to the White House said.

Still, some allies of the president suggested Hur’s appointment could be helpful for Biden in the long run by providing a clean comparison to former President Donald Trump — who himself is subject to a special counsel investigation into his handling of classified documents.

Biden’s aides believe the results of the two special counsels will demonstrate the clear differences between the two cases. One ally likened it to a “short term pain, long term gain” situation.

On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers made clear that they were not interested in letting up the pressure.

“I think Congress has to investigate this,” new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters.

Since Monday night, Biden himself has only addressed the issue at any length two times — once in Mexico City, and once at the White House Thursday morning. But both times, he would not go beyond the statements attributed to Sauber.

Biden told reporters Thursday that he would “get a chance to speak on all of this, God willing, soon.”

That was hours before the appointment of a special counsel.

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