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Biden Says He Doesn’t Know What’s in Classified Documents

U.S. President Joe Biden attends a joint news conference with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the conclusion of the North American Leaders' Summit in Mexico City, Mexico, Jan. 10, 2023.
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a joint news conference with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the conclusion of the North American Leaders' Summit in Mexico City, Mexico, Jan. 10, 2023.

President Joe Biden said he was “surprised” to learn his lawyers found government records in his former office at a Washington think tank and said he does not know what information is contained in the classified documents.

“My lawyers have not suggested I asked what documents they were. I've turned over the boxes — they've turned over the boxes to the [National] Archives, and we're cooperating fully with the review, which I hope will be finished soon and will be more detail at that time,” Biden said at a press conference in Mexico City with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following their meeting.

On Monday, Biden's personal lawyers disclosed that in November, a batch of documents from the time Biden was vice president, some of them classified, were found at the offices of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, an institute named after Biden and affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania that the White House said Biden used at times between 2017 to 2020.

Republican lawmakers have launched inquiries into the matter.

On Tuesday, incoming House Intelligence chair Mike Turner sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines requesting an "immediate review and damage assessment."

Turner said the discovery would put Biden in potential violation of laws protecting national security, including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act, two laws that the Justice Department cited as the basis of their search of former President Donald Trump's home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, last year. Trump had for months refused the National Archives' request to hand over classified documents suspected to be in his possession, until a search conducted by FBI agents in August found hundreds of documents, dozens of them top secret.

"When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House? These documents were definitely not declassified," Trump asked via the Truth Social platform Monday evening.

Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said that following the discovery of the material they immediately notified the National Archives, the agency in charge of handling such presidential documents.

"The White House is cooperating with the National Archives and the Department of Justice regarding the discovery of what appear to be Obama-Biden Administration records, including a small number of documents with classified markings," Sauber said in a statement.

Sauber said the documents were discovered when the attorneys were packing files "housed in a locked closet" to prepare to vacate office space and that the Archives took possession of the materials the following morning. He said Biden attorneys are working to ensure that "any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives."

Not uncommon

Given its nature, any mishandling of classified material raises serious concerns, but such incidents are not uncommon and routinely handled through administrative proceedings, said Mark Zaid, an attorney focusing on national security law.

"A thorough factual investigation will be in everyone's interests and presumably that will help identify whether any individual(s) are culpable," Zaid told VOA in an email. "At this point, there does not seem to be any evidence that President Biden had any knowledge or involvement with the records in question, but we need to wait to learn more."

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed John Lausch, a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, to investigate the matter. But even with the investigation, the White House is now in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why Biden may be committing the same transgression he had criticized Trump for.

Referring to the Mar-a-Lago documents, Biden questioned how "anyone could be that irresponsible" during a September interview on CBS News' "60 Minutes," and said he follows strict protocols governing sensitive material.

Republicans were quick to point out what they see as a double standard.

"If then-Vice President Biden took classified documents with him and held them for years and criticized former President Trump during that same time that he had those classified documents … I wonder why the press isn't asking the same questions of him as vice president taking classified documents that they were asking President Trump," House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said to reporters on Tuesday.

David A. Sklansky, former federal prosecutor and a professor of criminal law at Stanford University, said Biden's case "isn't remotely comparable" to Trump's.

"What made the situation at Mar-a-Lago so serious wasn't that classified documents were found there," Sklansky told VOA. "It was the stonewalling and deception about those documents, and the repeated obstruction of the government's efforts to recover the documents. There is no evidence of any of that here."

Democratic lawmaker Pete Aguilar called Republicans' move to investigate the president "hypocrisy at its finest," saying that Republicans did not consider investigating the hundreds of documents found in Trump's home to be a priority at the time.

"What President Biden did was disclose this to the Archives, let law enforcement know," he said. "That is exactly the way that you should handle this."

The White House has not confirmed whether the classified documents found at the Biden Penn Center include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics including Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, as reported by CNN.

The Department of Justice and the FBI declined VOA's request to comment, while Lausch's office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have not responded to VOA’s queries.

Katherine Gypson and Masood Farivar contributed to this report.