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White House goes into damage control mode as documents scandal escalates

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CNN

The White House is scrambling to catch up on the classified documents controversy and blunt a Republican effort to corner President Joe Biden and pull former President Donald Trump off the hook in his own secret documents drama.

Biden’s aides spent the weekend trying to police a failed communications strategy that compounded the impact of the discovery of vice presidential documents in his Delaware home and former office.

But now, under a special counsel investigation, they face the possibility of new research that potentially risks the politically explosive discovery of more documents as a new creeping House Republican majority stirs up the storm. . Biden, meanwhile, is growing increasingly frustrated with his plight, according to new reports from CNN.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the president as he struggles to get the situation under control. In the short term, the documents pane drowned out a series of favorable events, including a moderate cooling in inflation, which he hoped to use as a launch pad for a re-election bid he is expected to announce soon. The White House’s clumsy public relations strategy on some 20 documents has squandered any hope of drawing a sharp line between Biden’s cooperation with authorities and Trump’s months of resistance and obfuscation over his haul of hundreds of pages. classified documents.

Now that Biden, like Trump, faces a special counsel investigation, the White House is under extreme pressure to prevent the classic scenario of a petty scandal triggering leaky tributary investigations into other areas that could consume the presidency. of Biden.

The president’s hopes that this will be just a blow in early 2023 hinges on several key questions now facing an overwhelmed White House that has found tough definitive answers.

  • Are there other documents to be discovered that could multiply the political impact of the controversy?
  • Will there be more searches following the discovery of sets of documents in a former office used by Biden after his vice presidency and at his home?
  • Who would do such research? Biden’s lawyers? Or will the FBI also be involved, given that a special counsel was appointed last week by Attorney General Merrick Garland to avoid the appearance of political interference?
  • Given that the first set of documents was found in November, why did it take so long to search for other potential locations where vice presidential records, including potentially classified files, could be found? The pace of research conducted by Biden’s team concerned the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago that initially looked into the case, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN’s Evan Perez.
  • How quickly and effectively can House Republicans use this drama to fuel one of their top priorities — creating a narrative of corruption and shadow around Biden’s family and his son Hunter’s business interests?
  • Will a hitherto sluggish communications effort at the White House be able to turn the obvious hypocrisy of the GOP, which did not care about carrying larger documents from Trump, into a broader political message that can portray the majority of the House as extreme before the 2024 elections?

These questions could help determine whether this is another Washington scandal that leaves voters cold because it doesn’t necessarily align with their top priorities or whether the answer creates a broader impression of incompetence and chaos that could cause long-term damage.

Inside an increasingly beleaguered White House, Biden chafed at how the docs’ story dampened a political jolt he received after staving off a disastrous Republican red wave in the election. November mid-term.

CNN’s White House team reported a mood of quiet resignation in the West Wing as aides wait to see if more classified documents will surface among Biden’s papers, dating back to his time in as vice president of the Obama administration.

As is often the case in such circumstances, there is a clear tension between the strategies that might be advocated by the president’s lawyers, who are required to clear him of criminal liability, and the needs of a relationship approach. public aimed at shaking up the political damage.

So while not saying anything about the initial discovery of documents in the vice presidential office in November until the story came to light earlier this month might have made legal sense, it was of a political approach that was not viable.

Then, not revealing that other documents had been found when Biden spoke on the matter last week only made matters worse because it made it seem like he had something to hide. More discoveries would make the mess worse.

“On this particular story, they just don’t look good,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, who is now a political analyst for CNN.

“They’re between a rock and a hard place and the critical error was actually, the drip, drip,” Axelrod told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “The essence of crisis communication is to know where the story is going, to get there as soon as possible, to get there as fully as possible.”

There are signs that a harassed White House is starting to change tack. Over the weekend, for example, Richard Sauber, a senior White House attorney, said in a statement that five additional pages of documents were found at Biden’s residence in Wilmington last week. The move appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt a damaging revelation and not wait for it to be reported by reporters.

On Monday, the White House counsel’s office rebuffed Republican requests for more details, saying there was no visitor log for Biden’s private home. The GOP had demanded such documents as they sought to rapidly expand their investigations. The Secret Service also said the Presidential Protection Agency does not keep such records.

But House Republican Majority Leader Steve Scalise signaled just how contentious the current showdown will be when he warned, “Just because they said it doesn’t mean you don’t believe them. on word.”

The revelation to reporters that Biden felt frustrated with the handling of the document drama may itself be an attempt to limit the damage and insulate the president from further political exposure. But it remains to be seen whether the administration is still at a point where it can begin to dictate the terms of the story.

More days of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre beset with questions in the briefing room and unable to provide thorough answers are unlikely to help the president’s case. His own comments also appeared to make his lot worse last week – including when he joked that documents found in his garage were secure as it was locked to protect his beloved Corvette.

Agreeing on a compelling mitigation strategy will be crucial in deciding how the Biden classified documents case will play out with the general public.

One of the Washington Republicans’ goals is to maximize Biden’s discomfort and use his problems with the documents to undermine any eventual justification to criminally charge Trump for keeping classified documents or obstruction.

The two special counsel investigations are separate, and Trump appears to be in much greater legal peril. But in the heat of an electoral campaign where both are probably candidates, it is difficult to see concretely how the ex-president could be prosecuted for classified documents while a case weighs on his successor.

On the face of it, Republicans are guilty of blatant hypocrisy, as few cared about Trump’s refusal to turn over a much larger amount of classified documents — a stance that led to a court-approved search that took place. collected more than 100 documents. But now that Biden is hampered by the discovery of a smaller transport, the Republican majority in the House is shifting into high gear. House Oversight Chairman James Comer, for example, said last year that Trump’s situation was not a priority but had been aggressive in targeting Biden.

“We just want equal treatment here in terms of how former President Trump and current President Biden are treated,” the Kentucky Republican told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday on “The State of the Union,” accusing Democrats of double standards.

Unlike Trump, however, there is no indication that Biden sought in any way to hide documents once they were discovered or to obstruct their return to government as required by law when a high civil servant leaves the executive.

If the White House can get the narrative under control, it could use the discrepancies between the Biden and Trump approaches to limit the political damage to the president and start creating a counterattack designed to show Republicans they’re covering for an unpopular ex-president. .

But after last week, it’s still a big if.

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