Democrats barely had time to celebrate the chaos that marked the confirmation of Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House of Representatives, and the fact that they did not suffer such a terrible defeat in the November 2022 midterm elections for Congress.
Soon afterwards, embarrassing reports poured in that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was investigating a limited number of highly classified documents found at the residence and former office of US President Joe Biden, dating to the years when he served as vice president in the administration of former president Barrack Obama.
The DOJ announced the appointment of a Special Counsel to handle the case, while Republican chairs of two House committees vowed thorough investigations, and even requested a log of visits to Biden’s private house while he served as vice president between 2008 and 2016 to make sure he and his family did not compromise national security.
The aim was clearly to avenge the Democrats blowing up the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seizure of highly classified documents at the private estate in Florida of former Republican president Donald Trump a few months earlier. The DOJ had already appointed a Special Counsel to look into charges against Trump, adding to a series of investigations he had been facing over tax fraud and, more seriously, over his personal role in the storming of the Congress on 6 January 2021 to prevent the confirmation of election results declaring Biden the new president.
Right now, Republicans and Democrats are trading charges of double standards and abuse of power. Ironically, the Republicans now leading calls for investigations into Biden’s documents were the same ones who attacked the FBI and the Justice Department for their handling of a far larger document haul taken from Trump’s home.
The key difference is that whatever small minority Republicans hold in the House, causing disarray during the 15 rounds held to elect McCarthy as speaker earlier in January, it is enough to give Biden a headache in the next two years through a series of investigations that will not be limited to the case of classified documents seized at his private home and office.
House Republicans have already declared they were planning to bombard Biden’s administration with investigations, from fishy business dealings involving his son, Hunter Biden, to the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation, and immigration policy along the US-Mexican border, among others.
The aim is clearly to bruise the president politically ahead of the 2024 presidential race, in which Biden is expected to run for a second term against Trump. On Monday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have announced their own investigation of the classified documents that belonged to Biden, sending a letter to the attorney general, Merrick Garlnad, demanding details of the inquiry.
The revelation of the documents, which was handled chaotically by the White House communications team, forcibly put the Democrats on the defensive. Whatever effort they try to exert to point out that Biden’s handling of the documents’ case, his cooperation with the authorities and the limited number of documents seized were different from what Trump faced, made little sense.
“It’s much too early to tell,” Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, replied on CNN, when asked if he believes Biden broke the law. “I think President Biden has handled this correctly. He’s fully cooperated with the prosecutors… It’s a total contrast to president Trump, who stonewalled for a whole year.” With special prosecutors looking into both men’s cases, Schumer called for patience. “We should let it play out, we don’t have to push them in any direction or try to influence them,” he said.
The news that several classified documents from Biden’s time as vice president were discovered last fall at his private office in Washington, DC, was broken by CBS News just moments after his motorcade had rolled into the National Palace in Mexico City for a bilateral meeting with the president of Mexico last week.
According to White House lawyers, this initial set of documents was found by the president’s personal attorneys as they were closing out the downtown DC office that Biden used as part of his work with the University of Pennsylvania – which was not authorised to store classified material.
After the discovery, Biden’s lawyers immediately contacted the National Archives and Records Administration, which started looking into the matter. Biden’s team cooperated with NARA. In November, NARA sent a referral to the Justice Department to look into the matter.
Biden later said he did not know that government records from his time as vice president had been taken to his private office after he had left public service. Biden emphasised that he does not know what the documents contain.
The documents were discovered on 2 November, just six days before the midterm elections, but the president’s attorneys only publicly acknowledged the discovery of the documents on 9 January – when news reports of the discovery broke. The White House provided no clear answer as to why it took so long to search other potential locations in which vice presidential records, including potentially classified files, could be found.
The delay was easily exploited by House Republicans who used this drama to add fuel to one of their priorities – creating a narrative of corruption and shadiness around Biden’s family and his son Hunter’s business interests.
They will also seek to maximise Biden’s discomfort and use his problems with documents to undercut any eventual rationale for charging Trump criminally over retaining classified documents or obstruction. In the heat of an election campaign in which both are likely candidates, it is hard in a practical sense to see how the ex-president could be prosecuted over classified documents while a case overshadows his successor.
“We just want equal treatment here with respect to how both former president Trump and current President Biden are being treated,” House Oversight Chairman James Comer said on Sunday, accusing Democrats of double standards.
Comer had long accused the Biden family, namely the president and his son Hunter, of defrauding the United States, tax evasion, violating several laws and money laundering, among other accusations. “The president’s participation in enriching his family is, in a word, abuse of the highest order,” Comer said recently. He called Hunter Biden a “corrupt national security threat” – claiming his panel has evidence of relations with Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian officials.
Hunter Biden’s role in a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, was discussed in then-president Trump’s first impeachment probe – and it came up in Trump’s phone call in September 2019 to the newly elected Ukrainian president. President Trump pressed for an investigation into his then 2020 presidential rival, Biden, and his son, Hunter, in his discussion with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of additional aid for Ukraine.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.