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, 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, will act as a quasi-independent prosecutor 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. Garland said Hur will examine “whether any person or entity violated the law.”
The White House pledged to cooperate with the investigation.
“We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced,” White House lawyer Richard Sauber said in a statement.
The news means that 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.
That does not mean the two cases are the same. Biden’s attorneys said they turned over the relevant papers after finding them. Trump resisted doing so until an August FBI search, raising questions about whether he or his staff obstructed the investigation.
Garland said he decided a special counsel was necessary after an initial investigation conducted by John Lausch, a Trump appointee who serves as the top federal prosecutor in the Chicago region.
“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,” Garland said during a Justice Department appearance at which he took no questions.
Hur, in a statement, said he would conduct the investigation impartially.
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. A White House lawyer said on Thursday, hours before Garland’s announcement, that a second set of classified papers from that time was found at a storage space at his Delaware home.
Republicans called the new discoveries evidence of Biden’s hypocrisy. Biden had called Trump’s handling of classified documents “totally irresponsible.”
“The fact that they called for special counsel for Trump’s handling of classified documents, I don’t see how they cannot appoint a special counsel with respect to Biden,” said Representative James Comer, who will head the House Oversight Committee.
Comer said he would have preferred that his own committee lead the probe, saying that “when special counsels are appointed, it limits our ability to do some of the oversight investigations that we want to do.”
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.
About 100 documents marked as classified were among thousands of records seized during an August search at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Biden, 80, is expected to formally launch a re-election campaign in the coming weeks.
The president told reporters on Thursday that he will get a chance to speak on “all of this soon.”
“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.
Sauber, the White House lawyer, said 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 turned over the material to the U.S. National Archives, the agency responsible for the preservation of government records.
Garland said the National Archives first contacted the Justice Department on Nov. 4 after the White House told it that documents marked as classified where found at the think tank.
Biden’s personal counsel informed Lausch on Dec. 20 that additional documents marked as classified were identified at the president’s private residence, Garland said. Biden’s lawyer called Lausch on Thursday morning to say an additional classified document was found at Biden’s home, Garland added.
Trump during his presidency faced a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who found insufficient evidence to conclude that contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential race amounted to criminal conduct. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice but then-Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, subsequently cleared him.
Democratic President Bill Clinton was likewise dogged by an independent prosecutor, Ken Starr, who uncovered evidence of an extramarital affair, which led to Clinton’s impeachment.