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Inside 5 days of a White House straining to maintain business as usual

By Phil Mattingly, Chief White House correspondent

A White House facing the first full day of a special counsel investigation sought to maintain a business-as-usual attitude, highlighting what has become a central objective amid an uncertain and potentially perilous new reality.

President Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to the White House, making good on a private pledge two months prior, smiling as he ignored the shouted questions directed his way about the investigation into classified documents found at his home and old private office.

A carefully choreographed roll-out of warnings and statements from the Treasury Department, House and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House — designed to lay the groundwork for a looming battle with House Republicans over the need to raise the debt ceiling in the months ahead — went ahead as planned.

Top advisers held their weekly planning and strategy with outside allies, as scheduled.

As a small group of Biden’s closest aides and lawyers inside and outside the administration were quietly engaged in an intensive effort to navigate the legal, political and messaging problems that were jarringly thrust to the forefront in the last several days, most inside the West Wing had little to no involvement and were trying to focus on one thing: Normalcy.

On Capitol Hill, where Democrats have vacillated between public defense of Biden and private pangs of post-traumatic stress tied to another top Democrat dealing with legal issues tied to classified documents, at least one Democrat subscribed to the effort.

“Frankly, I don’t think we should focus too much on an issue that I honestly did not hear from a single person at home is their top concern,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and one of Biden’s closest allies, told CNN’s Manu Raju. “Their top concern is prices at the pump, prices at the grocery store, gun violence, climate change, jobs, moving our economy forward.”

At the close of a week defined by head-spinning developments tied to Biden’s handling of classified information after his time as vice president, it’s a goal that may appear to be aspirational at best.

Yet it’s also one that serves as a necessity for a White House where the vast majority of officials have no role on the team managing legal issues overtaking their carefully crafted plans and messaging.

Biden’s advisers, shifting back into the familiar posture that was honed on the campaign trail and is defined by a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude driven by criticism from national media and the Twitter accounts they so closely follow, see the last few days as evidence Biden’s broader policy goals and objectives won’t necessarily be bogged down.

As senior White House advisers took stock of five days of stunning twists and turns, they maintained it would serve as a roadmap for their path ahead, despite the spotlight of an investigation that is largely out of their control.

They repeated the view that the investigation will ultimately show Biden’s lawyers took the proper steps when the classified documents were discovered. There is neither upside nor benefit, they note, in engaging in an issue that is an ongoing legal matter — a position that has been laid bare in each White House press briefing held since the initial news broke.

Throughout the week, even as new developments surfaced that repeatedly caught Biden’s team off guard, they pointed to the fact they stuck to a strategic plan put together in the weeks leading up to the new year.

There was their first move of the new year on an issue with bipartisan overlap and clear political salience — laying down the broad outlines of potential Big Tech reform through a Wall Street Journal opinion piece carrying the president’s byline.

Each new House Republican legislative effort was met with an immediate, and coordinated, attack from Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill.

A South Korean solar panel maker’s announcement that it would invest $2.5 billion to build factories in Georgia marked the latest in tens of billions of dollars in new private sector investment incentivized by new laws signed by Biden. Drug price reductions, touted for months before their implementation, kicked in as well.

Senior administration officials participated in more than 100 regional and coalitions interviews on Biden’s policy priorities over the course of the week.

And on the day the special counsel would be announced, Biden’s top economic officials were repeatedly made available for media appearances on the release of Consumer Price Index data that showed a sixth consecutive month of decline in inflation.

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, in an appearance on CNN less than an hour before Garland’s announcement that former US attorney Robert Hur would be appointed special counsel, was asked if the legal issues were a distraction for Biden’s economic team.

“Absolutely not,” Deese said. “Our focus, the economic team’s focus, is going to be on continuing progress we’ve made, and today is a good, positive development on the economic side, but will increase our resolve to do the work we need to do on behalf of the American people to bring prices down, keep the economic recovery going.”

Biden’s schedule was kept the same as well, including his own remarks on the inflation numbers and broader domestic economy. It was a speech advisers viewed as an important marker for Biden — even if it was overshadowed by his willingness to engage on a question about the proximity of his Corvette to the classified documents discovered in his garage.

Biden was still attending the memorial service for former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter when the special counsel was officially appointed. He would be informed shortly after he departed of Hur’s appointment.

For Biden, who entered this year all but certain to seek reelection and with a clear and carefully choreographed strategic plan to highlight his legislative wins — all while isolating and elevating House Republicans — it has been a week in which each progressing day seemed to demonstrate just how quickly the ground can shift under carefully laid plans.

Yet senior White House advisers say they can stick to a plan that as this week began was viewed as both fully operational and critical to their political prospects in the year ahead.

Whether the determination to stick to those plans as crafted can hold, as an investigation bears down in the months ahead, has yet to be seen.

But on day one, as Biden departed the White House as scheduled, his intent to try was clear.

He smiled and gestured toward reporters as he walked out onto the South Lawn toward Marine One. But he ignored their shouted questions about the investigation.

He would arrive at his Wilmington, Delaware, home a short while later — the same home in which a second batch of classified documents was discovered, an ever-present reminder of an investigation he and his advisers appear determined not to let get in the way of their plans.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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