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By Adriana Diaz, Andres Triay, Arden Farhi
/ CBS News
Attorney General Merrick Garland has assigned the U.S. attorney in Chicago to review documents marked classified that were found at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, two sources with knowledge of the inquiry told CBS News. The roughly 10 documents are from President Biden’s vice-presidential office at the center, the sources said. CBS News has learned the FBI is also involved in the U.S. attorney’s inquiry.
The material was identified by personal attorneys for Mr. Biden on Nov. 2, just before the midterm elections, Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president confirmed. The documents were discovered when Mr. Biden’s personal attorneys “were packing files housed in a locked closet to prepare to vacate office space at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C.,” Sauber said in a statement to CBS News. The documents were contained in a folder that was in a box with other unclassified papers, the sources said. The sources revealed neither what the documents contain nor their level of classification. A source familiar with the matter told CBS News the documents did not contain nuclear secrets.
Sauber also said that on the same day the material was discovered, Nov. 2, the White House counsel’s office notified the National Archives, which took possession of the materials the following morning.
“The discovery of these documents was made by the President’s attorneys,” Sauber said. “The documents were not the subject of any previous request or inquiry by the Archives. Since that discovery, the President’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives.”
A source familiar with the matter said representatives from the National Archives then notified the Justice Department.
Garland assigned U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch to find out how the material marked classified ended up at the Penn Biden Center. The review is considered a preliminary step, and the attorney general will determine whether further investigation is necessary, including potentially appointing a special counsel.
Lausch was nominated to be U.S. attorney by former President Donald Trump, and he is one of only two current Trump-era U.S. attorneys still serving. The other is Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, who is leading an investigation into the president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Lausch recently briefed the attorney general and will eventually submit a final report to Garland. The review is expected to conclude soon.
The Penn Biden Center is a think tank about a mile from the White House, in Washington, D.C., that is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and named for the sitting president.
The Presidential Records Act requires all presidential and vice-presidential documents be turned over to the National Archives. There are special protocols to keep classified information secure.
Mr. Biden learned about the presence of the documents when his lawyer reported them to the White House counsel’s office in November. A source familiar said the president is unaware of their contents. The documents are believed to be currently held in a secure location in Washington.
Lauch’s review will examine, in part, how the documents got from Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential office to the Penn Biden Center.
The Penn Biden Center and the University of Pennsylvania did not respond to a request for comment. The National Archives declined to comment. Attorneys assigned to oversee Biden’s vice presidential records, Robert Lenhard, James Garland and Dana Remus, did not reply to voice messages and an email seeking comment. The Justice Department and FBI declined to comment.
A source familiar said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is aware of the Justice Department inquiry. The ODNI also declined to comment.
Former President Donald Trump commented on the CBS News story Monday night, asking on his Truth Social app, “When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House? These documents were definitely not declassified.”
Trump was alluding to the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate.
GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called the recovery of documents with classified markings from Mr. Biden’s time as vice president “very concerning.” He added, “He’s had these classified [documents], and what has he said about the other president with classified documents?” Asked if this instance is different because attorneys found them and “immediately” handed the material over, McCarthy replied, “Oh, really? They just now found them after all those years.”
Rep. James Comer, the incoming House Oversight Committee chairman, had questions when he learned of the documents. “What’s the difference in what President Trump did versus what we now know President Biden did,” he wondered. “We want to know exactly what documents were taken by both President Trump and now President Biden and want to know if they’re gonna treat President Biden any differently than they treated President Trump.”
Incoming House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan wants to know what the documents are before determining whether the committee should investigate further, but he said, “It’s always one set of rules for President Trump — they literally raided his home 91 days before the midterm election — and a different standard it seems with President Biden. So, we’ll go from there.”
The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, said in a statement that Mr. Biden’s attorneys “appear to have taken immediate and proper action to notify the National Archives,” and he went on to say, “I have confidence that the Attorney General took the appropriate steps to ensure the careful review of the circumstances surrounding the possession and discovery of these documents and make an impartial decision about any further action that may be needed.”
The Penn Biden Center case has parallels to the Justice Department’s pursuit of Donald Trump’s presidential records — but the scope and scale are materially different. In August, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago that yielded hundreds of documents marked classified.
That unprecedented search followed more than a year of tussling between Trump’s representatives, the National Archives, and the Justice Department. The search warrant was sought and executed in August after multiple failed attempts by the federal government to retrieve what it considered to be sensitive documents at the former president’s personal residence that should have been turned over to Archives under law.
The trove at Mar-a-Lago contained, among other material, secrets about nuclear capabilities and correspondence between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. An initial batch of 15 boxes was returned in January 2022, but Archives officials believed some records were still unaccounted for, prompting the agency to refer the matter to the Justice Department in February 2022.
The Trump investigation is now under the control of recently appointed special counsel Jack Smith.
In September, Mr. Biden appeared on “60 Minutes” and was asked for his reaction to a photo showing the documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago. “How that could possibly happen? How anyone could be that irresponsible,” the president said. “And it just — totally irresponsible.”
In all, federal officials have recovered more than 300 classified documents that were once in Trump’s possession.
Retaining classified information after leaving government service does not necessarily result in criminal charges. The FBI determined that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had classified material on her private email server for several years after she left the State Department in 2013. FBI investigators concluded that sloppiness, not ill intent, was to blame.
“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case,” FBI Director James Comey said at the time.
The Penn Biden Center gives the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania a foothold in the nation’s capital. The think tank, which opened in 2018, hosts academic programming and events focusing on foreign policy.
Mr. Biden used the office space from mid-2017 until the spring of 2019, when he declared his candidacy for the presidency.
The center’s sixth-floor offices sit at the foot of Capitol Hill and floor-to-ceiling windows provide a panoramic view of the Capitol. The center’s staff largely comprises former Obama administration officials, many of whom have left the center to serve in the Biden administration.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for example, was the center’s managing director in 2018. Steve Richetti, who now serves as a top White House aide to Mr. Biden, was managing director of the center in 2019.
The university named Mr. Biden a Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor in 2017 and has paid him $917,643 for speeches and for heading his eponymous center between 2017 and 2019, according to the president’s financial disclosures. He is currently on leave from the university.
Mr. Biden’s connections to the University of Pennsylvania run deep. His late son Beau and granddaughter Naomi have undergraduate degrees from the university. Biden’s daughter Ashley got her master’s degree at Penn, and his granddaughter Natalie is currently an undergraduate there. Then-Vice President Biden launched the Obama administration’s “cancer moonshot” at Penn in 2016.
The president discussed how he manages classified information at home in a Q-and-A session with reporters last August. “I have, in my home, a cabined-off space that is completely secure. I’m taking home with me today today’s [Presidential Daily Briefing]. It’s locked. I have a person with me — military with me. I read it, I lock it back up, and give it to the military.”
Asked whether it was ever appropriate for a president to bring home classified material, Mr. Biden said, “It depends on the document, and it depends on how secure the room is.”
Rebecca Kaplan, Zachary Hudak and Rob Legare contributed reporting.
Adriana Diaz is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago and is the anchor of Saturday’s edition of the “CBS Weekend News.”
First published on January 9, 2023 / 5:18 PM
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