According to two sources familiar with the discussions, Biden administration officials are offering top congressional leaders a briefing on classified documents discovered in the possession of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The officials had not yet scheduled a briefing because, according to the officials, the priority is an intelligence briefing for those leaders about the developments and diplomatic friction with China over a suspected spy balloon spotted floating over the United States before one was shot down Saturday.
The goal, according to the two officials, was to complete the briefing on missing documents by the end of the week. The briefing on documents would be for Congress’ “Gang of Eight,” the top leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the congressional intelligence committees, according to officials.
As they are armed with sensitive information, the group represents congressional leaders who have the most access to classified information and seek to shape US foreign and domestic policy.
Some congressional leaders, including Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have expressed dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s inability to provide more information about the Trump documents thus far.
Lawmakers argue that they can’t fix whatever is wrong with the country’s system of classifying and storing such material until they know what it covers. Some senators proposed that the Intelligence Committee issue subpoenas to the law enforcement arm that usually does this, the Justice Department, in order to obtain that information.
However, news that the Biden administration plans to brief congressional intelligence leaders on Sunday may have averted the standoff.
Both the documents and the Chinese balloons are classified as intelligence matters in the United States, and a White House briefing for the House and Senate intelligence committees is required by law. The president, on the other hand, has the authority to limit information to a small group of committee leaders if necessary.
Republicans in Congress have been demanding a briefing on the documents seized at Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, home on Aug. 8 as part of the FBI’s criminal investigation into allegedly mishandled classified material, some labelled “top secret.”
Agents claimed to have seized approximately 11,000 records, with approximately 100 of them labelled classified.
Trump has stated that the seizure was political in nature and unnecessary. The National Archives and Records Administration, the items’ legal custodian, has tried several times since Trump left office in 2021 to get the documents it believes were with him returned. Following the return of a batch of documents from Trump’s private residence, federal officials determined that there were more with the former president.
Trump’s lawyers turned over 38 more classified documents, as well as a signed declaration stating that “all responsive documents had been turned over,” in June. The FBI disagreed and sought a warrant, prompting a search of Trump’s Palm Beach estate and resort, Mar-a-Lago.
Trump filed a lawsuit over the seizure, but his lawyers dropped the case after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his appeal. The former president sought intervention from the United States Supreme Court, which declined.
He claimed ownership of the seized documents. He also claimed that the FBI planted evidence against him in order to smear him. In any case, Trump claimed that as president, he had the authority to declassify material as he saw fit, despite the lack of evidence or documentation of declassification.
Official White House papers are federal property and must be turned over to the National Archives when a president leaves office, according to federal law.
Subsequently, classified items were discovered in Biden’s office at his Penn Biden Center think tank in Washington and at his home in Delaware, and they were returned, as were classified items discovered at Pence’s Indiana residence. In both cases, the material was discovered by people working for the two former vice presidents after they decided to look ahead of time in order to avoid the legal issues that Trump has faced.
It was revealed in January that the National Archives had sent a letter asking former living presidents’ and vice presidents’ staff members to search for materials that could be classified or government property.
According to one of the sources, it’s unclear what the Biden administration will reveal in the update. The briefing plan was developed in response to bipartisan outrage that the director of national intelligence and the Justice Department failed to inform congressional intelligence leaders about the documents and their significance to US security.
On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, revealed the White House offer to brief the Gang of Eight.
“The Biden administration had not engaged anyone in national security on the issue of threats posed by these documents,” he said. “It took Congress to intervene and declare, “We want a security threat [assessment].” Then they tried to deny giving us the briefing on the [balloon] threat.”
Turner accused the Biden administration of changing the subject following Saturday’s downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the Carolina coast by abusing its obligation to brief top congressional leaders on intelligence matters.
Republicans cast the balloon’s presence over the United States, as well as the resulting tensions in a diplomatic back-and-forth with China, as bad news for Biden on Sunday. Some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, called the administration’s actions on Saturday “leadership.”
“What’s interesting is that the moment this balloon became public, I received a notice from the administration not that I’m going to get a briefing on this balloon, but that they have to rush to Congress now to talk to us about Donald Trump’s documents,” Turner said. “It’s clear they want to change the news.”