The White House strategy to manage the special counsel investigation into President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents has taken shape.
Pledge full cooperation.
Attack House Republicans.
Don’t engage on the details of an ongoing matter.
Most of all, maintain the meticulously planned strategic road map on which Biden planned to act this month long before all but a small handful of White House officials were even aware the handling of classified documents was a problem for anyone other than his predecessor.
After a week defined by uneven and incomplete responses, the White House has settled into that strategy, which officials insist they can maintain for the duration of a special counsel investigation.
They acknowledge their plan comes with the reality of a timeline they can’t control, tied to an investigation with an uncertain pathway that may last well into the year ahead.
Still, White House officials believe that pushing ahead with their regularly scheduled programming is the best way for them to move through this latest rough patch.
“We know that’s what the American people truly care about as well,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday at her daily briefing. “And it is very important for them that we do that work.”
For a White House that appeared repeatedly caught on its back foot over a six-day period defined by revised statements and new discoveries, there is a sense inside the West Wing that things, for the moment at least, have steadied.
Senior White House advisers, even as they acknowledge how little visibility they have into the specifics of the documents discovered or the process that has given way the investigation, insist that when special counsel Robert Hur completes his work, it will show the right steps were taken by Biden’s lawyers.
Biden, despite what people familiar with the matter described as frustration with how the response has overshadowed his agenda, has no intention of making changes to his staff or holding out someone to take the blame, officials say.
White House officials note there have been no changes to Biden’s schedule, which has included meetings and calls with foreign leaders, speeches and events to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a focus on the economy.
The Golden State Warriors roamed the West Wing Tuesday before and after an East Room event commemorating their 2022 championship – with coach Steve Kerr and all-star guard Stephen Curry providing a high-wattage, if not at all subtle, distraction at the start of the daily White House briefing that has grown increasingly contentious and devoid of clear answers.
Biden will travel to California on Thursday to meet with first responders, local officials and residents hit by devastating extreme weather.
A strategy that carries clear risks
White House officials, burned by definitive answers a week ago, will no longer definitively say no other documents will be found. Explicit statements that the search for documents is complete have been pared back, in part as an acknowledgment that the special counsel’s team may conduct more of their own.
Biden has intentionally ignored questions on the matter, after engaging twice last week. It’s an intentional move as advisers – and his lawyers – seek to keep his day-to-day actions, at least in the public sphere, above and away from the legal morass that has developed.
But they acknowledge that if Biden decides he wants to weigh in, he will.
“He’s the president,” one adviser said with a shrug. “But he also knows what people really care about – and this isn’t it.”
Even the repeated pledges of “full cooperation” can be slightly less rigid when specific questions – like whether Biden is willing to testify if asked – are broached. It’s in part out of a clear-cut effort to avoid engaging in hypotheticals, but also a recognition that the investigation itself will go a long way to determining how Biden’s personal lawyers navigate the steps ahead.
Jean-Pierre said she had no awareness of an issue that was first discovered on November 2 until reporters got wind of it less than two weeks ago. While Biden maintains a small and tightly knit inner circle, it was a window nonetheless into just how few people were aware of the matter before the news broke.
Several other senior aides have privately acknowledged they had no insight into the matter, which has been handled primarily by Biden’s private attorney Bob Bauer and White House special counsel Richard Sauber.
In a mid-November communication shared with The Washington Post, a senior Justice Department official wrote a letter to Bauer, requesting his help with the department’s probe.
The official, from DOJ’s national security division, asked that the president’s legal team secure materials from the Penn Biden Center without reviewing them or any other related documents at other possible locations, The Post reported Wednesday.
The DOJ official also asked Bauer to grant the department consent to review the collected materials and to hand over a list of locations where other documents may be stored.
“Obviously this has been a situation defined by what their team doesn’t know, and I’m not sure anyone is comfortable saying they’ve put that behind them at this point,” one person familiar with the internal White House discussions said. “That said, there’s a pretty prevalent view that if this lands how they think, nobody will remember the mess of last week anyway.”
Biden “has confidence” in his team, Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday as she continued to avoid answering a series of outstanding questions on the matter, citing the ongoing investigation. “The president and his team rightfully took action when they learned that the documents existed, they reached out to the archives, they reached out to the Department of Justice.”
White House goes on offensive against GOP
But the clearest window into that reality has been the barrage of attacks leveled from West Wing officials in the last 48 hours at House Republicans pledging their own investigations into the matter.
Phrases targeting House Republicans that include “fake outrage,” “purely for partisan gain” and “shamelessly hypocritical” have started to animate a demonstrably more aggressive response from the West Wing.
In an example of that strategy, Ian Sams, spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, accused Republicans of “handing the keys of oversight to the most extreme MAGA members of the Republican caucus who promote violent rhetoric and dangerous conspiracy theories.”
“As we have said before, the Biden administration stands ready to work in good faith to accommodate Congress’ legitimate oversight needs. However, with these members joining the Oversight Committee, it appears that House Republicans may be setting the stage for divorced-from-reality political stunts, instead of engaging in bipartisan work on behalf of the American people,” Sams said in a statement provided to CNN.
While the statement did not call out the far-right members by name, it comes a day after several prominent election deniers – Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert and Scott Perry – were named to the House Oversight Committee.
The foil is familiar, and one the White House spent months gearing up for in preparation for a new House Republican majority, even if those preparations were based on the assumption a steady stream of investigations would be based on Biden’s first two years in office – or his family.
Sauber joined to the White House counsel’s office last May explicitly for that reason. It was a hire that came during careful deliberations between the White House counsel and Bauer on how to navigate the House GOP pledge to probe personal matters for Biden along with his administration, according to people familiar with the matter.
But those resources, after a week of grappling with an issue advisers acknowledge was both unexpected and fraught with more acute risks, have now been firmly trained on the same House GOP committee chairmen they long planned to mount steady messaging offensives to counter.
While White House officials have taken pains to detail the clear differences between Biden’s issues and those that have drawn federal investigators toward former President Donald Trump, the fact both are facing investigations has created a political opening White House officials are rushing to exploit.
Republican interest in Biden’s issues while expressing general ambivalence to Trump’s handling of hundreds more classified documents and refusal to turn them over to the government upon repeated request has provided a steady stream of quotes and clips for White House officials to cite as evidence of partisan intent.
The pledge of “full cooperation” is specifically tied to the special counsel, officials note. When it comes to the requests and letters they’ve received from House Republicans, the scale of the cooperation included in those responses is likely to be dependent on whether those requests have been made in “good faith,” Sams told reporters during a Tuesday conference call.
Implicit in that is the fact that White House officials don’t appear to view any of the efforts as tethered to “good faith” based on their rhetorical broadsides this week, in part due to the stated reticence in probing Trump’s legal issues.
Despite the reluctance to engage, beyond the pledge of cooperation, on what the White House legal strategy will be with the special counsel, it is clear officials view that effort as both far more serious and more deeply tied to Biden’s long-held commitment not to interfere in Justice Department matters.
That position, in and of itself, creates a “tension” between the array of questions that remain unanswered and the mandate from Biden’s attorneys not to do anything that could affect the ongoing investigation, Sams acknowledged.
Sams also acknowledged the overarching risk that looms above a White House determined to stick to its plan.
“In any investigation, as an investigation is ongoing – especially an investigation where people are cooperative and are working hand-in-hand with the department to review these matters – information is going to develop,” Sams said. “That’s a natural part of any investigation.”
This story has been updated with additional information.