Democrats are expressing alarm over President Biden’s classified documents controversy, with some criticizing the president as diminished in stature and his staff as irresponsible.
“I’m very concerned,” said Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), one of several incumbent Democrats who face potentially difficult reelection races next year in reliably GOP states in presidential elections.
“We have to get to the bottom of it to find out what the hell happened, why it happened,” he said.
“This is about national security,” Tester added, saying investigators need to find out if “it put our national security at risk.”
Biden’s January has been submerged in revelation after revelation of classified documents found at his former office and home. Most recently, 11 more documents were found during a search at Biden’s Wilmington, Del., home on Friday.
The drip-drip-drip nature of the findings has left Democrats and Republicans alike wondering whether there will be more documents found and has left the White House looking off-balance at times.
Biden emerged from the 2022 midterms in a stronger position after Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and held down their losses in the House. Democrats still see Biden as their most likely standard-bearer, and lawmakers in his party have been quick to contrast his handling of classified documents with former President Trump — who is dealing with his own controversy.
At the same time, there’s little doubt the issue has raised some questions for Biden and the White House just as his team prepared to move forward with an expected presidential announcement later this year.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who like Tester is up for reelection next year in a state that Trump won easily in 2020, blasted the lax handling of secret information as “unbelievable” and “totally irresponsible.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Sept. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)
Biden’s attempt to dismiss the building scandal last week by asserting “there’s no there there” also drew a barb from Manchin.
He told CNN on Monday “that’s just not a good statement,” adding “we just don’t know” what secrets may have been compromised.
Criticism from Manchin is hardly unheard of, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who represents a safer state for Democrats, was also somewhat critical on Sunday. He said the controversy “diminishes” Biden and noted the president rightly felt “embarrassed by the situation.”
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) on November 15, 2022. (Greg Nash)
Durbin on Monday said of the White House: “They were not careful in handling classified documents.”
“When I think of how we deal with them in the Capitol in comparison, whoever was responsible for it didn’t follow the basic rules,” Durbin said of the handling of classified documents.
Durbin said he never took a classified document out of his office, “let alone out of the building.”
Yet Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stopped short of speculating whether Biden committed a potential crime, telling reporters: “I wouldn’t go that far.”
House Republicans are saber-rattling over the issue, signaling they intend to use their newly won oversight powers to look into the Biden documents story in a more aggressive way than they looked into Trump’s controversy.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the new chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, has requested that the Secret Service hand over all the information it has on visitors to Biden’s Delaware home in the time since he served as vice president.
The request — made to Secret Service Director Kimberly Cheatle on Monday — came after Comer demanded that visitor logs for the residence be turned over. The White House said last week that such records do not exist.
Later on Monday, White House counsel Stuart Delery wrote to Comer that the administration does not have possession of the documents the National Archives and Department of Justice have taken as part of the investigation into Biden’s handling of classified materials.
Delery pledged to “accommodate legitimate oversight interests” in response to Comer’s request.
One GOP strategist said Republicans will go after Biden aggressively given the Trump controversy.
“The House is going to have a field day with investigations because of the fact that the Biden administration has been so outspoken criticizing Trump for the exact thing,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate aide.
Darling said the House could vote on articles of impeachment if the special prosecutor or House investigators find Biden broken the law or jeopardized national security.
“It’s possible. It depends on how the hearings go in the House. I think it’s quite possible that there will be discussion about impeachment because Democrats seemed so open to the idea of impeachment against President Trump and we’ve seen a lot of the payback from many of the things that happened when Democrats controlled the House, like kicking members off committees,” he said.
Durbin told reporters he expects House Republicans to go overboard in trying to tear down Biden, just as they did when they tried to blame former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the death of four Americans at a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said Biden’s possession of classified documents now effectively “completely neutralizes” Democratic attacks against Trump for holding sensitive material in Florida.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. (Greg Nash)
“I’m not sure I understand all the laws that pertain to classified documents. I know the procedures that apply, but it seems to me the Justice Department is going to have to sort all that out and I think right now it’s still an evolving situation,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), a senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the careful handling of classified documents should always be a top priority and declared: “All of the circumstances are going to be examined …. So there’s a message that nobody is above the law.”
“The rule that I follow scrupulously is you don’t take documents out of the room,” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of information coming out and I want to wait and see what the facts are.
But Wyden also gave Biden some political cover by drawing a distinction with Trump.
“One point that I don’t believe is in contention is President Biden has voluntarily cooperated and the former president did not,” he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who faces a competitive re-election in a Republican-leaning state, urged the administration to be as transparent as possible.
“There’s nothing that’s betrayal of national interest, there’s nothing he’s trying to hide but they need to come out with all of it,” he said. “He’s got to deal with it and get it over with.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) expressed frustration that the media attention surrounding the classified documents scandal threatens to eclipse the congressional agenda.
“It’s being looked at to the nth degree,” he said. “I’m concerned that I think we’re wasting an awful lot of effort on something that has a special prosecutor look[ing] into it and at the end of the day it looks like all you’re going to find is some sloppiness. We have real problems to work on,” he said.