WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House sought to deflect criticism that it is withholding information about one of Joe Biden’s biggest scandals, taking questions Tuesday about batches of classified records discovered in his home and an old office.
Ian Sams, a White House official, spoke to reporters Tuesday about documents dating back to Biden’s vice presidency, marking the first time the White House has solicited questions about the classified materials. Although he provided little that advanced the public’s understanding of the situation, his willingness to answer questions was a departure from his initial response.
Democratic allies have criticised Biden’s handling of the scandal, urging him to be more forthcoming about how the documents ended up in his Delaware home and a Washington think tank, as NBC News reported last week.
In the briefing, Sams, a senior adviser to the White House counsel’s office, stated that the White House is limited in what it can responsibly disclose due to an ongoing Justice Department investigation. Officials are attempting to explain what happened publicly without jeopardising the federal investigation, a difficult balance to strike, according to Sams.
“I understand the conflict between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation and disclosing information publicly,” Sams said.
However, legal experts questioned the White House’s hesitation. The question is whether the White House kept quiet about improperly stored documents in the hope of sparing Biden the political fallout from such a disclosure. According to a law enforcement official, the Justice Department has not instructed the White House to remain silent about the facts of the investigation.
“There is nothing about a DOJ investigation that legally prevents someone under investigation from speaking publicly,” NBC News legal contributor Andrew Weissmann, a top prosecutor in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of former President Donald Trump, tweeted.
Some details are still unknown, according to the White House. Sams did not provide an exact number of documents discovered in response to a question.
“You know, as soon as these records were discovered, they were immediately turned over to the proper authorities,” he explained. “And so, in terms of contents, in terms of numbers, in terms of the specifics related to the materials itself, we just can’t address that, because these have been handed over to the proper authorities. And these will be part of the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation.”
The discovery prompted immediate comparisons to documents recovered from Trump. In August, FBI agents searched his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and seized classified material stored there. At the time, Biden was among those who condemned Trump. “How could anyone be so irresponsible?” he asked on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in September, before the documents were discovered in Biden’s office.
On December 20, Biden’s personal attorneys discovered more classified documents while searching his home in Wilmington. They turned over the materials to the Justice Department.
The White House did not acknowledge the discovery of the documents until this month, according to a CBS News report.
When asked why the White House waited so long, Sams stated, “We want to make sure that you all and the public are served with complete information to the best of our ability as part of this ongoing investigation.”
Until now, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has mostly referred questions to others or reiterated that Biden is cooperating with the Justice Department investigation in her daily briefings.
By allowing Sams to speak on the record, the White House relieves pressure on Jean-Pierre and may allow her to devote more time to talking points important to Biden.
However, former White House officials say Biden should never have allowed the issue to escalate to this point. House Republicans have launched their own investigation, and their findings will almost certainly be used to undermine Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“Everything spills out. “You might as well get it out as soon as possible,” a former Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. “You get questions like, ‘Why did you wait three months?'” she says.