Nearly six years after Joe Biden’s term as vice president ended, classified materials — including some reportedly top-secret files — were discovered in the closet of a think tank housed on the sixth floor of a private D.C. office building.
The news comes less than four months after President Biden called former President Donald Trump “irresponsible” following the seizure from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home of documents marked classified. The Biden administration has already moved to preempt claims of hypocrisy by leaking the existence of a Justice Department investigation into the matter, but it is much too late to undo the double standard that led to the FBI raiding Trump’s Florida home last year.
“Attorney General Merrick Garland has assigned the U.S. attorney in Chicago to review classified documents found at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, two sources with knowledge of the inquiry told CBS News,” yesterday’s breaking news story opened. Richard Sauber, a special counsel to President Biden who was reportedly hired by the White House in May of 2022 to assist in the administration’s response to any potential Republican-led investigations, confirmed to CBS News that the classified documents were discovered on Nov. 2, 2022.
According to Sauber, while Biden’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.,” they discovered the documents. Unnamed sources told CBS News that the classified documents were in a folder stored within a box containing other unclassified papers.
While CBS News noted that the sources did not reveal “what the classified documents contain[ed] nor their level of classification,” CNN later reported that “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.”
The discovery that Biden had stored classified documents at a private D.C. think tank is especially embarrassing for the president given comments he made in September 2022 when he sat down with Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes.” When asked how he reacted to seeing photographs of several documents bearing classification markings seized at Mar-a-Lago, Biden remarked that he wondered, “How that could possibly happen,” and “how anyone could be that irresponsible.”
“I thought,” Biden said to Pelley, “What data was in there that may compromise sources and methods?” “It’s just totally irresponsible,” Biden repeated.
While Biden has yet to personally address the discovery of the classified documents, having ignored questions on the issue from reporters covering his Mexico City summit, his administration is already spinning the story. One Biden source told CNN that the president’s “lawyers immediately contacted the National Archives and Records Administration, which started looking into the matter.” “Biden’s team cooperated with NARA, which later came to view the situation as a mistake due to lack of safeguards for documents,” the unnamed source claimed.
But the similarities between the situations remain striking, with the classified documents both at Mar-a-Lago and at the Biden think tank, comingled with unclassified documents, reportedly including “top secret” documents, and stored in a closet.
At least, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home was private and protected by the Secret Service, while the Penn Biden Center was located at a busy D.C. office building that spanned some 10 stories and included numerous public areas, including a reception area on the roof that hosted weddings and other private events.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration seeks to squelch the controversy by focusing on his cooperation with the National Archives and Records Administration. But it is the lack of cooperation by the National Archives and Records Administration with former President Trump that marks the real difference in the situations.
Even before the Obama-Biden administration ended, former President Obama “rented a private facility in Hoffman Estates to serve as a storage place for his presidential papers, and by October of 2016, while he was still in office, shipments of artifacts from his presidency began arriving at the suburban Chicago storage facility.” The National Archives and Records Administration would later work with Obama to ship his documents to the Chicago suburb. And the Obama documents — both classified and unclassified — remained at the Hoffman Estates location well into 2018.
As I wrote in August, shortly after the FBI’s raid on former President Trump’s home:
The only difference between the Hoffman Estates’ storage of the Obama presidential records that began in 2016 and the Mar-a-Lago storage of Trump’s presidential records was that the documents were technically within the possession of NARA. But even though the documents were legally the property of NARA, Obama still had the right to access the records, including the classified documents.
So if the NARA had legitimate concerns about Trump’s possession of presidential records at Mar-a-Lago, the NARA “would have worked to arrange for the documents to be preserved under the auspices of NARA control in a location chosen by Trump, as it had done with Obama.”
But the NARA didn’t work with Trump, with the records instead suggesting that “a backbench bureaucrat’s partisan grievance spurred the FBI’s nakedly political raid on Trump.” And that is where the real double standard is seen.
Who knows, too, what classified documents the FBI might have discovered had it raided all the Biden and Obama properties mere months after they left office, as agents did to Trump?
We’ll never know that answer, though, because the NARA properly partnered with the former Obama-Biden administration. And that is the appropriate comparator to consider, not how the NARA or the DOJ responded to the recent discovery of Biden’s secreted classified documents. Of course, given their very public mistreatment of Trump, the NARA had to refer the case to the DOJ, and Attorney General Merrick Garland had to assign a U.S. attorney to investigate the matter.
But the supposed equal treatment on display now does not undo the NARA’s partisan targeting of Trump that began the day he walked out of the White House for the last time. Nonetheless, it is quite satisfying to watch the Biden administration eat crow.