Joe Biden is under pressure. Since it became known at the beginning of the year that secret documents were found in his office and home, the US President has been in the spotlight unintentionally. Worse still, he's being compared to the very man he's been trying to distance himself from since he took office - his predecessor, Donald Trump.
For Biden, the comparison is particularly politically explosive, since Trump caused a scandal with a similar case last summer. When the FBI raided the ex-president's Mar-a-Lago home in August, officers seized thousands of documents, including around 100 classified documents. In the case of Biden - as of today - there are significantly fewer secret documents. In addition, the White House never tires of emphasizing that, unlike Trump, they have worked closely with the responsible authorities from the very beginning. Still, the damage is done.
Biden and his team are heavily criticized primarily because of the information they only release "in bits and pieces". The public only found out about some of the finds through media reports. It is only a small consolation that secret documents have now also been discovered on ex-Vice President Mike Pence. And there is no end in sight: Biden's weekend home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware was only scrutinized on Wednesday. Time to look back at what has happened over the past three months.
November 2, 2022: Barely a week before the important midterms, the first stack of secret documents is found in Joe Biden's think tank in Washington - when one of his private lawyers opens a locked cabinet. The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement is part of the University of Pennsylvania, which Biden founded and whose offices he used after his tenure as vice president ended in early 2017. Attorney General Merrick Garland describes it as a place "not authorized to hold classified documents." The documents found are about ten papers, some of which are marked "top secret" according to the "Washington Post". The documents will be immediately turned over to the National Archives, which maintain the US President's records, according to Biden's special adviser Richard Sauber.
November 4: Two days later, according to Garland, the inspector general of the archives contacts a district attorney at the Justice Department. He tells him that the White House disclosed the finding of secret documents in the Penn Biden Center.
November 9: The day after the midterms, the FBI will conduct an evaluation to determine whether the document find violated any law, according to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, Biden's Democrats have reason to celebrate. The party did significantly better than expected in the midterm elections.
November 14: Attorney General Garland hires prosecutor John R. Lausch Jr., nominated for the job by ex-US President Donald Trump in 2017, to conduct an initial investigation into Biden's classified papers. This is intended to help determine whether a special prosecutor is warranted for the matter.
December 20: Just before Christmas, Biden's lawyers discovered a second batch of classified documents in his garage at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. The president's special adviser informs prosecutor Lausch about the find, and the FBI secures the documents. The public does not yet know anything about the finds of secret documents at this time.
January 5, 2023: At the beginning of the year, public prosecutor Lausch informed the Minister of Justice about the status of the investigation and recommended the appointment of a special investigator. In the days that followed, the Justice Department named Robert K. Hur as a potential special counsel. Hur is a former US Attorney in Maryland who was also installed by Trump in 2018.
January 9: The public first learned of the November discovery of the documents through a report by CBS News. The White House then confirms that the Justice Department has launched an investigation and says it is working with both the Department and the National Archives. However, it does not mention the discovery of further papers shortly before Christmas. For the Republicans, who shortly before took control of the House of Representatives, the investigation is a godsend.
Jan. 11: Biden's attorneys again search his Wilmington residence and the US President's weekend home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. In Wilmington, they find "a potential document marked classified" in a room next to the garage. According to a statement later released by Biden's personal attorney, Bob Bauer, the attorneys then stopped searching the room because they did not have the appropriate security clearances. In the beach house, on the other hand, you will not find any such papers.
January 12: Events in the White House are tumbling down. In the morning, Biden's special adviser, Sauber, released a statement confirming the discovery of classified material in Wilmington. Because of the place where it was found in the garage, the media now only speaks of "garage gate". At a press conference this afternoon, Attorney General Garland announced Hur's appointment as special counsel. In his speech, he explains that Biden's attorneys have notified the Justice Department of the discovery of the latest document in Wimington. That same evening, Special Counsel Sauber discovered five additional pages of classified information.
Jan. 14: Two days later, Biden's team discloses the additional pages found on Jan. 12. Special Counsel Clean confirmed that these were immediately turned over to the appropriate Department of Justice investigators. Biden's personal attorney, Bauer, is also releasing a detailed timeline to underscore the White House's cooperation on the matter. He adds that the team is unsure if all relevant documents have been found.
January 19: US President Joe Biden tries to smooth things over. Biden says he doesn't regret how the White House handled the disclosure of the documents found, emphasizing the close cooperation with the Justice Department. "I think they'll find that there's nothing there," he says, referring to the ongoing investigation. A statement that ages badly...
January 20: For almost thirteen hours, Justice Department employees combed "all the work, living and storage rooms" of Biden's Wilmington home - and found what they were looking for. The Justice Department confiscates six sets of "classified documents and associated materials." In addition, some handwritten notes from Biden's time as Vice President will also be taken for further review.
Jan. 21: The day after, Biden's attorneys released a statement disclosing the Jan. 20 search.
January 24: The affair about secret documents from earlier years of government spreads. According to media reports, documents classified as secret have also been discovered in the home of former Vice President Mike Pence. A lawyer for the Republican found about a dozen documents in his home in Indiana last week, reports the CNN broadcaster, among others. The documents have since been picked up by the federal police.
January 26: Now the National Archives are also getting involved. According to the "CNN" report, all living presidents and their deputies were asked in writing to look out for secret documents at home. The letter urges former heads of state to review their files to ensure purportedly personal material does not "accidentally" include presidential records
February 1: The Justice Department now also pays a visit to Biden's weekend home in Rehoboth Beach. However, no other secret documents were found there, Biden's lawyer Bauer said afterwards. As in Wilmington, the officials only took some materials and handwritten notes from Biden's time as vice president. The search was coordinated between investigators and lawyers, with the full support of the President. According to media reports, the FBI was also involved.
The consequences of the secret documents found for Biden, Pence and Trump are now in the hands of the Department of Justice. Trump probably has the most to fear because, unlike Biden and Pence, he behaved uncooperatively and did not want to release the documents. Politically, however, it will be difficult to accuse the ex-president, but not the incumbent. The topic is also uncomfortable for Pence, who is also said to have ambitions for the White House.
For Biden, however, the investigation comes at the worst possible time. Actually, the Democrat wanted to use the momentum after the midterms and soon start announcing a possible new presidential candidacy. But with the classified papers affair in his charge, Biden's image as a decent and trustworthy man in the White House is beginning to suffer.
An impression that has also stuck in the eyes of the public: According to an "ABC" poll, 77 percent of voters believe that Trump misbehaved when dealing with secret documents. At 64 percent, Biden is no longer many fewer.
Sources: NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, ABC Poll, with DPA material