As President Biden’s handling of classified documents draws congressional scrutiny, Congress is in a position to get answers to important questions: How did classified material from his time as Vice President get to Biden’s private D.C. office and his home in Delaware? Who packed them up and who had access to those rooms? Why didn’t Biden tell the public when the first secret documents were discovered on Nov. 2, four days before the midterm elections? What needs to be fixed so the next time a President and Vice President move out of office, their records are protected and preserved?
Instead of focusing on those questions, House Republicans—newly installed at the top of congressional committees with subpoena power—are winding up their inquiries as vehicles for amplifying unfounded conspiracy theories and landing political hits on Biden.
An early sign of this strategy came on Sunday, when a key Republican made clear he would be focused on Biden’s classified document issues, but not Donald Trump’s, despite the former President having fought official requests for the return of boxes of secret papers for more than a year.
Rep. James Comer, the Kentucky Republican leading the House Oversight Committee, told Jake Tapper on CNN that he wasn’t concerned with investigating how classified documents got to Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago. When it comes to Trump, Comer said, “at the end of the day, my biggest concern isn’t the classified documents, to be honest with you. My concern is how there is such a discrepancy with how Trump was treated, by raiding Mar-a-Lago by getting the security cameras, by taking pictures of documents on the floor, by raiding Melania’s closet.”
Tim Stretton, who trains House committee staff on how to conduct investigations, says congressional investigations should be focused on gathering information to make recommendations for reforms. It will be difficult for inquiries by House Republicans’ to appear legitimate if they are not also exploring the discovery of hundreds of classified documents at Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Fla.
“If you narrow it to the point where it looks partisan, the public has a hard time seeing the legitimate problems,” says Stretton, who is the director of the congressional oversight initiative at the Project On Government Oversight, a non-profit watchdog organization.
The exclusion of Trump in their inquiry is just one hint of how House Republicans plan to conduct their investigations. Comer has peppered his initial requests for information with unfounded theories about China trying to influence Biden’s foreign policy through donations to the university that employed him. There’s also Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to name Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, both election deniers and spreaders of false conspiracies, to Comer’s oversight committee, as well as the position of Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a firebrand Trump defender, as head of the House Judiciary Committee, which is also investigating the issue.
The approach echoes the Republican-led investigations into the deadly 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya. Multiple investigations and scores of hearings didn’t uncover wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time of the attacks, but Republican leaders believed the inquiries and headlines damaged her credibility in advance of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. In a Fox News interview in 2015, McCarthy said Clinton looked “unbeatable” at the time. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping,” McCarthy said on air.
Heather Sawyer, the executive director of American Oversight, a progressive watchdog group, served as chief counsel to the Democratic members of the Select Committee on Benghazi. She argues that the exclusion of Trump from an investigation into the classified documents lays bare House Republicans’ real goal.
“When exercised responsibly, congressional oversight is an important cornerstone of American democracy,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the clearly selective targeting of a political opponent is not responsible or objective.”
What have House Republicans asked for so far?
Comer has sent requests to the White House, the National Archives, and the University of Pennsylvania, where Biden was employed as a professor after he left the vice presidency in 2017. The university manages the D.C. office space Biden used for a period and where his personal lawyers told the National Archives they found classified documents on Nov. 2.
The House committee has requested documents and information be handed over by the end of January, and plans to discuss issuing subpoenas for the information if the requests are ignored, a spokesperson for Comer tells TIME. No House Democrats have signed onto the requests so far.
Comer is demanding information from the university on Biden’s time at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank which opened in 2018. The details Comer requested on Wednesday included a list of people who had keycard access to the Biden Penn Center office in Washington, D.C., a log of visitors who met with Biden there, and documents related to the security of the luxury office building near the U.S. Capitol.
Comer also wants information about donations to the university from China, citing an unfounded theory that donations to Penn from China were intended to be passed through to Biden to influence his foreign policy positions. Comer has requested a list of Chinese donors to the university starting in 2017 and correspondence about such donations.
Ron Ozio, a University of Pennsylvania spokesman, disputed Comer’s insinuations about foreign influence on its think tank. “The Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity” and the Penn Biden Center budget comes from university funds, he said in a statement. He added that the university would respond to Comer’s requests “in a timely manner.”
The focus on foreign influence reveals Comer’s interest in linking his investigation of Biden’s handling of classified documents and a separate committee investigation into the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter. In his letter to Mary Magill, University of Pennsylvania’s president, Comer wrote that Hunter had listed Joe Biden’s Wilmington home as a primary address in 2018, and expressed concern that Hunter “may have had access” to the classified documents found in the Wilmington garage.
Separately, Jordan, in his role as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting all documents related the discovery of the classified materials at Biden’s D.C. office and Wilmington home; all communications between Biden’s lawyers and the FBI and Justice Department; and all documents related to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decisions to have John R. Lausch, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, conduct the initial review of the case and to have Robert Hur, the former U.S. Attorney in Maryland, take over the investigation as special counsel.
What comes next?
The litany of requests around Biden’s handling of classified documents sets the stage for protracted legal battles between House Republicans, the executive branch, and the University of Pennsylvania. Public hearings on Biden’s handling of classified documents are likely, Comer’s spokesperson said, but nothing has been announced yet.
The White House has referred questions about how classified documents ended up in Biden’s private office and Delaware home to the White House counsel’s office and the Department of Justice, where Garland appointed Hur as special counsel last week to handle the review of the case. “The President takes classified information seriously,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday.
While the White House is being careful not to discuss specifics about the classified documents case, it has not held back in remarking on the lawmakers McCarthy has tapped to help investigate the matter, criticizing Republican leaders for putting “extreme MAGA members” on House oversight committees. “These are members who have promoted violent rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories, including suggesting violence against political opponents, trafficking in antisemitic lies, and defending and downplaying a violent insurrection against our democracy,” Jean-Pierre said.
In the run up to the 2020 election, Jordan wrote on Twitter that Democrats were “trying to steal the election” and also spoke at a “Stop the Steal” rally in Pennsylvania after the election. In addition, Greene and Gosar are set to join the House Oversight Committee. In the previous Congress, Greene was stripped of committee assignments for promoting a Facebook post about shooting then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, questioning whether the US government planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and confronting a survivor of a school shooting. Rep. Paul Gosar lost his committee assignments after posting to social media an animated video showing him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Both Trump and Biden face situations involving classified documents that are now in the hands of special counsels. Garland appointed Jack Smith in November to handle both Trump’s taking of classified documents and his role in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Federal officials had negotiated for over a year with Trump about returning all the documents he took from the White House to Mar-a-Lago. In court filings justifying the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, federal officials said they were concerned Trump had taken steps to obstruct their investigation. The Biden White House has tried to show that Biden’s lawyers reached out to federal officials as soon as they discovered classified material in his private D.C. office in November and when they found more classified documents at his Wilmington home in December in January.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of unanswered questions related to Biden’s situation. And the White House has released information piecemeal rather than all at once. Biden hasn’t explained why he didn’t tell the public immediately that such documents were found in November, and instead has had his lawyers and press secretary give narrowly tailored answers to questions after the news broke on Jan. 9.
The communications strategy by the Biden White House has been “really awful” and “inconsistent,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies presidential politics. The White House response “cuts against that administration’s message heading into 2024, which is, ‘We are competent and organized and ethical.’ And that’s really good for Donald Trump and really bad for President Biden.”
Biden’s approval rating dipped slightly to 36% after the news about the classified documents became public, according to a survey of American adults released on Jan. 18 by Quinnipiac University. Roughly two-thirds of Americans were concerned about the classified documents found in Biden’s home and private office, but didn’t think Biden should face criminal charges, the pollsters found.
While the situation creates an opportunity for Republicans to undermine Biden, they could end up shooting themselves in the foot, Wright says. “The committees have a lot of political baggage,” says Wright, who adds, “Even though they do have something really serious to look into now—and most Americans agree it is serious and requires investigation—they are at risk of turning it into a political sideshow.”
–With reporting from Eric Cortellessa/Washington