Washington Adjusts to Altered Landscape After Justice Dept. Installs Special Counsel

Washington Adjusts to Altered Landscape After Justice Dept. Installs Special Counsel

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate President Biden’s handling of classified documents drew a mixed reception from Republicans, who had hoped to spearhead the effort themselves.

Representative James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, insisted Thursday night that he was “not a big fan of special counsels.” The prosecutor, Robert K. Hur, had “better be just focused on Biden’s handling of classified documents” and leave the rest of the digging to congressional Republicans, he said in an interview with Fox Business.

Washington was adjusting to an altered landscape on Friday after a whipsaw week that began with the revelation that Mr. Biden’s lawyers had discovered sensitive government documents at his former office and ended with Mr. Biden joining his political rival, former President Donald J. Trump, as the subject of a federal investigation.

The White House has responded by emphasizing the stark differences between the inquiries, saying that Mr. Biden fully cooperated with investigators and the National Archives after two sets of classified papers from his time in the Obama administration were discovered in his possession. Federal prosecutors have conducted interviews with people in Mr. Biden’s orbit, according to people familiar with the situation, while officials working on the Trump investigation grappled with what the developments might mean, if anything, for their own work.

And Republicans, who see the Biden investigation as a prime political opportunity after a disappointing showing in the midterm elections, recalibrated their efforts to account for Mr. Hur’s appointment. A well-regarded former Trump appointee at the Justice Department, Mr. Hur is a far less tempting target than Mr. Garland, a Democrat appointed by Mr. Biden.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, said she believed the work of the special counsel, who has the power to recommend criminal charges, could stymie the efforts of congressional Republicans.

“And just like that, everything we request will be ‘under investigation’ because of Merrick Garland’s appointed special counsel and unavailable to Republican investigators,” Ms. Greene wrote on Twitter Thursday, shortly after Mr. Hur was named to the role. “Amazing.”

The top Republican in the House also expressed skepticism of the special counsel’s investigation. “We don’t think there needs to be a special prosecutor, but I think Congress has a role to look,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California said Thursday on Capitol Hill.

On Friday, Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, deflected questions about the details surrounding the discovery of the documents.

“I’m not going to get into any specifics from here,” she said, adding that she had tried to be as transparent as possible given what limited information she could disclose because the investigation was continuing.

Her measured responses reflected the awkward position the administration now finds itself in, as a separate special counsel investigates Mr. Biden’s predecessor over whether he also mishandled sensitive government documents.

Although the circumstances of the cases involving Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump are decidedly different, as a political matter, the new inquiry will almost certainly muddy the case against Mr. Trump. Already Mr. Trump is arguing that he is being selectively persecuted by the administration of a president he is almost certain to challenge in 2024.

Mr. Garland, for his part, has consistently sought to insulate the Justice Department from accusations of partisanship, and the scrutiny of directly overseeing sensitive investigations. In November, he tapped Jack Smith, the former head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section and a veteran war crimes prosecutor, to oversee concurrent investigations into the discovery of classified material at Mr. Trump’s Florida residence and resort and a sprawling investigation involving the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.


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His choice of Mr. Hur, a longtime Republican, is intended to offer him a similar buffer in the Biden case.

But there is only so much Mr. Garland — or Mr. Biden, for that matter — can do given that Republicans now control the House, giving them broad investigative powers.

Even before news reports disclosed that Mr. Biden’s aides had found classified documents at his private home and office, Mr. Comer, who has vowed to aggressively investigate the Biden administration over the next two years, had started to ramp up those efforts.

On Friday, he sent a broad demand for records to the White House Counsel’s Office, seeking all classified documents that Mr. Biden or his aides had retrieved. Mr. Comer also asked for a complete list of aides and lawyers involved in the search for additional classified documents and their security clearances; a list of all locations searched; and all communications among White House officials, the Justice Department and the National Archives about the matter.

Other House Republicans were also jockeying to lead an investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of classified files. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the judiciary committee, and Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican of Louisiana who also serves on the committee, sent Mr. Garland a letter Friday demanding a wide range of documents that are part of the open investigation.

In appointing a special counsel on Thursday, Mr. Garland assigned Mr. Hur to look into “the possible unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or other records discovered” at Mr. Biden’s think tank in Washington and his residence in Wilmington, Del.

Under Mr. Garland’s order, Mr. Hur is authorized to prosecute crimes arising from the inquiry or to refer matters for prosecution to federal attorneys in other jurisdictions.

The White House promised to fully cooperate while insisting prosecutors would find only unintentional errors.

“We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake,” Richard Sauber, a White House lawyer overseeing responses to investigations, said in a statement.

Mr. Biden, who excoriated Mr. Trump for being “irresponsible” with national secrets, now has to answer for how his own team handled sensitive papers. Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden so far as is known did not resist repeated requests to return documents. In fact, the White House has said that after his lawyers discovered them, they promptly returned them. But it did not publicly disclose the discovery for two months, waiting until after the midterm elections.

And a new timetable outlined by Mr. Garland on Thursday made clear that even then the White House did not initially reveal the extent of the situation.

Asked on Thursday why classified documents had been kept alongside his prized Corvette, Mr. Biden replied, “My Corvette is in a locked garage. OK? So it’s not like they’re sitting out in the street.”

“But as I said earlier this week,” he added, “people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously. I also said we’re cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting.



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