Politics

Biden White House faces transparency questions as document drama continues

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday continued to avoid answering reporters’ questions on the ongoing classified document drama as the White House faces questions of transparency about what it’s told the American public as opposed to the Justice Department.

Face-to-face with reporters at an Oval Office meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier in the day, Biden appeared to smile as a reporter shouted whether he would commit to speaking with the special counsel named to look into the case. Biden has not yet offered a public reaction since Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Robert Hur last week to investigate the potential mishandling of classified documents.

White House difficulty dealing with the perception problem continued as press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, again, struggled at the podium when confronted with reporters’ questions in the first press briefing since news broke that Biden aides found five more classified documents — which Jean-Pierre did not mention at Friday’s briefing.

The documents were discovered on Thursday, according to the White House, which did not disclose the find until Saturday.

“On Friday, you stood here, though, and were asked about these documents, by our count, some 18 times,” said ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega. “At that point, the president’s lawyers had found these five additional pages of classified document — so did you not know, on Friday, that those documents had been found when you were at the podium, or are you being directed by someone to not be forthcoming?”

“I have been forthcoming from this podium,” Jean-Pierre replied, before later admitting that she “did not know” about the additional pages. “I had the information that you all had at the time.”

Jean-Pierre has, so far, referred all questions to the Justice Department.

“I’m just going to continue to be prudent here. I’m going to let this ongoing review that is happening — this legal process that is happening — let that process continue under the special counsel. We’re not — I’m not — going to comment from here,” Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.

“Look, guys, you guys can ask me this 100 times, 200 times, if you wish. I’m going to keep saying the same thing,” she added later on. “I hear your question. It’s been asked. It’s been answered. It’s been noted.”

Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden’s mood has been “very clear,” despite reports he has been frustrated by how much this situation has overshadowed his agenda.

“The president has confidence — I can tell you this that the president and his team rightfully took action when they learned that the documents existed,” she insisted.

To help deal with the public relations problem, the White House counsel’s office spokesperson, Ian Sams, held his first on the record briefing call with reporters Tuesday afternoon to take questions on the matter ahead of Jean-Pierre’s briefing — but revealed very little new information.

For the first time, Sams explained why Biden’s personal lawyers were cleaning out his office at the Penn Biden Center in the first place, saying “trusted aides” were involved since “this is the president of the United States, and these are personal materials.”

Sams also faced questions about why the White House did not disclose the discovery of five additional pages until news broke on Saturday morning and offered one justification for withholding information on the investigation to the public. He said releasing incomplete information could do a disservice to the public — and appeared to acknowledge more materials could be discovered.

“The investigation may uncover additional information,” Sams said. “It may reveal additional facts…But when you are releasing impartial or periodic information … you run the risk that the public isn’t served by incomplete information at times. And so we understand that there’s a tension here and we’ve been trying to balance that tension while being totally cooperative with the Justice Department.”

“On Saturday, the president’s personal attorneys, the White House counsel’s office, we released additional statements. We thought it was important to address information that we had put out previously in the week, but we also wanted to make sure that you all had a fulsome explanation of the process so far,” Sams said, not acknowledging the host of additional questions Saturday’s statement dredged up.

While Sams, nor any of the president’s lawyers, have appeared at a White House press briefing, he has released statements taking on Republicans’ attacks.

“House Republicans have no credibility,” he said in a statement on Monday. “Their demands should be met with skepticism and they should face questions themselves about why they are politicizing this issue and admitting they actually do not care about the underlying classified material.”

“As President Biden has said repeatedly, he takes classified information seriously, which is why he immediately directed his team to ensure the documents were sent back to the government. President Biden is doing the right thing and is cooperating fully with a thorough review, but House Republicans are playing politics in a shamelessly hypocritical attempt to attack President Biden,” Sams added.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday afternoon punched back at the White House and said Democrats were the hypocrites.

“They found out President Biden had these documents, not under lock, but a simple push of a button that could open a garage door … prior to an election, they kept it secret,” the top House Republican told reporters on Capitol Hill. “And no time did he get raided by the FBI. At no time did they come forward and say who was there could actually see these documents that are sitting in the garage behind a corvette.”

McCarthy said House Republicans plan to look into both Trump and Biden’s special counsel investigations. This comes after House Oversight chair Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., requested visitor logs and communications from the Biden White House but said investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents was not a priority.

“My concern is how there’s such a discrepancy in how former President Trump was treated, by raiding Mar-a-Lago, getting security camera, taking pictures of documents on the floor, going through Melania’s closet, versus Joe Biden, your personal lawyers who don’t have security clearance, they can go through, they can just keep looking and keep looking and determine whatever is there,” Comer said Sunday on CNN.

Some outstanding questions

There are still several outstanding questions the White House has not answered.

One primary question is why wasn’t the DOJ investigation wasn’t made public until two months after the first documents were found. Another is what prompted the president’s personal lawyers to go back to his Wilmington Home on Jan. 11, after document discoveries in November, before the midterms, and in December.

Reporters have also asked Biden whether he will agree to sit down for an interview with the special counsel but, so far, have no answers.

Finally, the question as to what exactly is in the classified documents has not been answered by the White House.

ABC News’ Molly Nagle and Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.

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