WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden’s own administration on Thursday named a special counsel to probe the improper storage of classified documents at his home and a former office, an echo of a wider-ranging inquiry directed at his main political rival, Mr Donald Trump.
The inquiry is a distraction for a Democratic president who has criticised his Republican predecessor’s handling of classified material, and could cast a shadow over Mr Biden as the two gear up for a possible 2024 election rematch.
US Attorney-General Merrick Garland said Mr Robert Hur, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland under Mr Trump, will act as a quasi-independent prosecutor to determine whether classified records from Mr Biden’s time as vice-president had been improperly stored at his residence in Delaware and a think tank in Washington.
Mr Garland said Mr Hur will examine “whether any person or entity violated the law”.
White House lawyer Richard Sauber said Mr Biden’s personal attorneys found “a small number” of documents with classified markings in a locked closet in November when they were packing files at an office Mr Biden formerly used at the Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a University of Pennsylvania think tank.
Some material was also found in a locked garage at Mr Biden’s home and an adjacent room, and pledged to cooperate.
“We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced,” Mr Sauber said.
Asked by a reporter on Thursday about the wisdom of storing important material next to his Corvette, the self-declared ‘car guy’ president said both were in a locked garage.
“People know I take classified documents and classified material seriously,” he added.
The White House said Mr Biden does not know what is in the documents.
Mr Biden and Mr Trump now each face inquiries from special prosecutors, who are typically appointed to politically sensitive cases to ensure a degree of independence from Justice Department leadership. But their cases are not the same, legal experts say.
The White House said Mr Biden’s attorneys found a small number of classified documents and turned over the relevant papers after finding them.
Mr Trump resisted doing so until an August FBI search turned up about 100 classified documents, raising questions about whether Mr Trump or his staff obstructed the investigation.
“The facts cannot be more different. The only similarity is there were classified documents that were taken out of the White House to somewhere else,” said Mr Kel McClanahan, head of National Security Counselors, a law firm.
The special counsel investigating Mr Trump’s handling of documents is also leading inquiries into the Republican’s attempts to overturn his November 2020 election defeat to Mr Biden.
As a sitting president, Mr Biden faces less legal risk than Mr Trump. He has broad latitude to declassify documents and will likely be shielded from prosecution, as the Justice Department has a long-standing policy of not bringing criminal charges against the occupant of the Oval Office.
Mr Trump, by contrast, lost those protections when his term ended in January 2021.
Mr Garland said he decided a special counsel was necessary in the Biden case after an initial investigation conducted by Mr John Lausch, a Mr Trump appointee who serves as the top federal prosecutor in the Chicago region.
“This appointment underscores for the public the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters, and to making decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law,” Mr Garland said.
Mr Hur said he would conduct the investigation impartially.
Some Republicans in Congress said they would be in a better position than the Justice Department to handle the investigation.
“When special counsels are appointed, it limits our ability to do some of the oversight investigations that we want to do,” said Representative James Comer, who will head the House Oversight Committee.
Mr Garland named a special counsel, Mr Jack Smith, in November to oversee investigations of Mr Trump, shortly after Mr Trump said he would seek the Republican nomination to run again for president in 2024.
About 100 documents marked as classified were among thousands of records seized during an August search at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Mr Biden called Mr Trump’s behaviour “totally irresponsible” in September. REUTERS