WASHINGTON — President Biden’s lawyers told the Justice Department in November they had no reason to believe copies of his vice presidential official records had ended up beyond a think tank in Washington, where several classified documents were found that month, two people familiar with the matter said on Sunday.
That claim, the people said, was based on interviews with former officials who had been involved in the process of packing and shipping such material. Biden’s legal team had surveyed them after the Nov. 2 discovery of a small number of classified files in a closet in his former office at the Penn Biden Center, seeking to understand how the files got there.
But it would turn out that there were also a handful of classified records at Biden’s residence in Wilmington, Del. The flawed premise, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, helps explain why roughly seven weeks passed before Biden’s lawyers searched the garage of his Wilmington home on December 20 and found several boxes. more classified papers.
The increasing scrutiny Mr. Biden faced over his handling of the materials led in turn to the discovery of even more sensitive documents at his residence this month, when Attorney General Merrick B. Garland also appointed special counsel. And on Friday, FBI agents, at the invitation of Biden’s lawyers, conducted an extraordinary search of every room in his Wilmington home and found another half dozen files marked classified dating back to his time as a senator. .
The account from people familiar with the matter shed new light on a sequence of events that has led to significant political turmoil for Biden. It comes as former President Donald J. Trump is also under investigation by special counsel for his repeated refusal to return confidential documents after leaving the White House, including his failure to comply with a subpoena that led the FBI to obtain a search warrant. his residence in Florida.
Understand the case for the Biden documents
The discovery in two locations of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president has prompted the Justice Department to examine the situation.
Former officials familiar with the packaging of Biden’s White House office and the vice president’s Naval Observatory home at the end of the Obama administration told Biden’s lawyers there were two main sets of materials, the people said.
One set was believed to be material that could be useful to Mr. Biden for his post-vice-presidential career in public life or teaching, such as his speeches and unclassified policy memos on topics that interested him. Those materials were initially sent to two transition offices and then to his office at the Penn Biden Center when it opened in 2018. (Original copies of official records would be retained by the National Archives and Records Administration.)
The other set, the people said, was believed to contain no official records. It was supposed to be material like political campaign documents and memorabilia from previous campaigns, which are exceptions to what counts as presidential records. Those boxes were sent to the garage at his Wilmington residence, the people said.
Biden’s personal attorneys, led by Bob Bauer, told the Justice Department they had no basis to believe the official records had gone anywhere other than the Penn Biden Center after he notified them on Nov. 10. he was looking through the classified files. The lawyers stopped conducting their own review of how the documents might have gotten there and told the department what steps they had taken thus far, the people said.
Biden’s legal team also said it would inform the Justice Department if any government records of his vice presidency were later located elsewhere or if they knew reason to believe such files might be elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, Garland assigned John R. Lausch, a federal prosecutor in Chicago who had been appointed by Trump, to determine whether to install special counsel.
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Biden’s lawyers initially expected the Justice Department’s preliminary investigation to be brief. But as the weeks passed, they decided as a matter of due diligence, and not because of any new information, that it also made sense to mark the boxes in the garage, the people said; the lawyers did not inform the Justice Department in advance.
On December 20, once they found several classified records in those boxes, they notified the Department of Justice, prompting discussions about whether there might be more such files at the main residence.
Against that backdrop, Biden’s personal attorneys decided they would search several work and storage areas within the living room of the home, the people said; this time, they informed the Justice Department of the plan and said they would inform the government of the results.
After finding a classified page in one of those rooms on January 11, they stopped looking and alerted the Justice Department. When law enforcement officials came to retrieve that page, five more classified pages were discovered in the same area.
All involved understood and agreed that the discovery of those six pages meant the government would have to conduct its own search of the work and storage areas in the house that Biden’s legal team had identified, the people said. But Biden’s legal team invited the FBI to also search every room in the residence, including the bathrooms, bedrooms and utility room, the people said.
The reason, the people said, was that an independent search by the FBI would allow for a quick and definitive determination of whether further classified files were inappropriately stored in the home.
House Republicans, now in a majority, have vowed to press ahead with their own investigation. On Sunday, Rep. Michael R. Turner, an Ohio Republican who will likely oversee the House Intelligence Committee, accused Biden of being a “serially classified document hoarder” and suggested he must have been showing them the documents. to the people.
“This is going to be crucial, I think, to the special counsel investigation, why did the president have these documents?” Turner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Who did you show them to? And he is connected to the Biden family businesses?
Even as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois emphasized that Biden and Trump had responded very differently to the discovery of classified material after they left office, he was also critical, calling the situation “outrageous” on “State of the Union.”
It has diminished Biden’s stature even if it turns out to be an aide’s fault because “the elected official bears ultimate responsibility,” Durbin said.