U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday named a special counsel to investigate whether President Joe Biden improperly handled sensitive government documents, setting up a parallel inquiry to an ongoing probe of former President Donald Trump.
The inquiry, to be led by Robert Hur, that could cast a shadow over the Democratic president’s expected run for re-election in 2024.
Garland said Hur, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland under Trump, would act as a quasi-independent prosecutor to head an effort to determine whether classified records stemming from Biden’s time as vice president had been improperly stored at his residence in Delaware and a think tank in Washington.
The news means that the two likely 2024 election rivals now face inquiries from special prosecutors, who are typically appointed to politically sensitive cases to ensure a degree of independence from Justice Department leadership.
One distinction between the two cases is that Biden’s attorneys said they turned the papers over when they located them, while Trump resisted until an August FBI search, leading to questions of whether he or his staff obstructed the investigation.
Garland, in an appearance at the Justice Department, said he decided a special counsel was necessary after an initial investigation conducted by John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor in the Chicago region who was appointed by Trump in 2017. Garland said that “the extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel.”
“This appointment underscores for the public the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters and to making decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law,” added Garland, who took no questions.
Republicans in Congress called the new discoveries evidence of Biden’s hypocrisy.
“It’s obvious. Everybody can see it, and it’s on open display for everyone in the country to see,” Republican U.S. Representative Mike Johnson said. “Why has the Department of Justice not come in force as they did against the allegations against President Trump?”
The White House on Monday disclosed that classified documents from Biden’s vice presidential days were discovered in November at a think tank in Washington, and a White House lawyers said on Thursday that a second set of classified papers from that time was found at a storage space at his Delaware home.
Garland named a special counsel, Jack Smith, in November to oversee Justice Department investigations related to Trump, including the Republican former president’s handling of classified documents and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The announcement came after Trump said he would run for president again after being defeated by Biden in 2020.
Biden, 80, is expected to formally launch a re-election campaign in coming weeks. The disclosures about the documents already have caused him political worries.
The president told reporters on Thursday that he will get a chance to speak on “all of this soon,” before reading from a prepared statement that echoed the information the White House put out moments earlier.
“As I said earlier this week, people know I take classified documents, classified material seriously. I also said we’re cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review,” Biden said.
Biden said his legal team found a small number of documents with classified markings in storage areas and file cabinets in his personal library at his Wilmington home. The library is attached to his garage, which Biden said is locked.
Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said in a statement on Monday that classified materials were identified in a locked closet by personal attorneys for Biden on Nov. 2 when they were packing files at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a University of Pennsylvania think tank.
Officials said Biden’s attorneys discovered fewer than a dozen classified records inside the office and informed the U.S. National Archives, the agency responsible for the preservation of government records, turned over the materials and cooperated with the Archives and the Justice Department.
Biden said he was “surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office” and did not know their contents.
A special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, in 2019 during Trump’s presidency documented contacts between the businessman-turned-politician’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, but found insufficient evidence to bring a charge of criminal conspiracy. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice in trying to impede the Russia investigation, but then-Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, subsequently cleared him.
An independent counsel, a post similar to that of a special counsel, served during Bill Clinton’s presidency investigating the 1990s Whitewater political scandal and the Democratic president’s sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. That inquiry led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, though he was acquitted by the Senate.
In Trump’s document case, FBI agents carried out a court-approved search in August at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. About 100 documents marked as classified were among thousands of records seized during the search.
One distinction between the two cases is that Biden’s attorneys said they turned the papers over when they located them, while Trump resisted until the FBI search, leading to questions of whether he or his staff obstructed the investigation.
Biden in September called his predecessor’s handling of classified documents “totally irresponsible.”