Documents inquiry puts spotlight on Biden’s frenetic last days as vice president
President Joe Biden talks to reporters at the White House, in Washington on Jan. 4, 2023. It
is unclear how involved he was in the disposition of documents before his 2017 departure
from the White House.
By PETER BAKER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
Those last days were a blur of phone calls, meetings, farewell events, and visits to Ukraine and Switzerland. As he wrapped up his tenure as vice president in January 2017, Joe Biden was packing in as much as he could.
The question now is: What else was being packed? And by whom? And why? And where was it going?
The appointment of a special counsel has focused new attention on Biden’s frenetic final stretch in the White House after eight years as the No. 2 to President Barack Obama. Somehow, a small number of classified documents would go not to the archives, where they belonged, but to Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and, later, a private office in Washington, where they did not.
With Biden back in the White House, he finds himself struggling to explain what happened. His administration kept the discovery of sensitive records secret from the public for two months until media reports revealed it, and has had to update its version of events multiple times over the past week. On Saturday, the White House said that after previously reporting that one page of classified material had been found in a room next to the garage at the Wilmington house, five more pages were discovered by Justice Department personnel who had come to collect the material.
Robert Hur, who was named special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday to investigate the mishandling of those papers, will undoubtedly labor to reconstruct the events of those winter days in 2017 when members of the outgoing vice president’s staff were rushing to pack up their files, turn in their badges, work with the incoming team and find new jobs for themselves. The White House has provided no explanation yet for how or why the documents wound up in the hands of Biden as a private citizen.
For Biden, January 2017 was a time of uncertainty. For the first time in 44 years, he would be out of government, no longer a senator, no longer a vice president, no longer at the center of the action, no longer with an obvious future ahead. He would write a book, sure, and start a think tank. Months would pass before he would resolve to run for president again. And in that period of transition, something went wrong.
Biden said this past week that “I was surprised to learn that there are any government records that were taken to that office.” No evidence has emerged publicly to indicate that he knew they had been taken improperly. If the vice president did not personally remove them when he left the White House, Hur will no doubt try to determine which aides were involved in packing his papers.
Even before Hur’s appointment, Justice Department officials had interviewed several Biden associates, according to people informed about the inquiry. Among them was Kathy Chung, who was Biden’s executive assistant while he was vice president and now works for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, NBC News reported.
Chung was said to have helped pack up Biden’s office in January 2017, but there is no public indication whether she had handled the documents in question or knew that anything she was putting away for transfer was classified.
The White House has declined to answer questions beyond limited statements issued over the past week. “We have been transparent in the last couple of days,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters Friday.
But the White House had not been transparent in the past couple of months. The first classified documents were found Nov. 2 and a second batch on Dec. 20. After the initial discovery, the White House promptly notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which then informed the Justice Department.
However, lawyers had privately resisted going public on the grounds that they wanted to wait until a more complete picture emerged and did not want to alienate the Justice Department by seeming to litigate the matter in the media.
As Biden was preparing to leave the public sector, his vice presidential chief of staff, Steven Ricchetti, and other advisers helped him put together a blueprint for a post-White House life to channel his energies and efforts.
Among them was a memoir that Biden published in November 2017 called “Promise Me, Dad,” referring to his son Beau, who had died of brain cancer in 2015 and reportedly urged his father to stay in the public arena. Many former presidents and vice presidents seek to use government documents through a regular process to assemble their memoirs, but it is not clear whether the papers found in recent months were part of book research.
Another project that Biden took on after the White House was the creation of a think tank associated with the University of Pennsylvania called the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, which opened in February 2018. It was at his office at the Washington headquarters of the Penn Biden Center that the first batch of classified documents was found in November, more than three years after Biden had formally stepped down from the center to run for president.
The Obama-Biden White House had established a regular process for handling secret papers and the White House Office of Records Management worked closely with the archives to ensure that files were transferred appropriately.
Anything the president saw was archived. Classified papers would be returned and put in the National Security Council system or, if involving domestic policy, in the Office of Records Management system. The White House staff secretary’s office was charged with ensuring that documents were properly managed.
How much Biden was involved in the disposition of documents in the days leading up to his 2017 departure from the White House is not clear. He had a hectic schedule as he tried to squeeze in as much activity as possible.