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The public was slow to learn that Biden's lawyers returned old classified documents

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

November 2, that's when President Biden's lawyers say they discovered some old classified documents where they shouldn't be. But the White House didn't publicly disclose it until it blew up as a big news story. And even then, they weren't fully forthcoming about the extent of the problem. Now, it is a full-blown political headache for Biden. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has more on the story.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The story broke on Monday. The next day, Biden started explaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They found some documents in a box, you know, a locked cabinet or at least a closet. And as soon as they did, they realized there were several classified documents in that box. And they did what they should have done.

KEITH: It was days before the midterm elections. And his lawyers quickly turned the documents over to the National Archives, which then contacted the Justice Department. And an investigation soon began. The way Biden described it, the problem sounded contained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: And we're cooperating fully with the review, and which I hope will be finished soon. And there'll be more detail at that time.

KEITH: It turns out the investigation isn't done. And Biden's public statement omitted a significant fact. In December, Biden's lawyers found more files, this time in his garage in Wilmington, Del. But on Wednesday, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre purposely didn't talk about it, even as NPR's Franco Ordoñez specifically asked whether Biden's lawyers were searching in other places.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Whether in Wilmington or Rehoboth, has there been any kind of, like, audit that's been done of where there may be others that he doesn't know about?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: I'm just not going to speak to this. I'm going to let the process continue. It's an ongoing process.

KEITH: No sooner did she finish, than another story broke, this one about the documents found in Wilmington back in December. It wasn't until Thursday morning that the White House confirmed it. But Jean-Pierre insisted she had been as transparent as she could be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-PIERRE: I can't talk about this - right? - because it is - the Department of Justice is reviewing it.

KEITH: The press corps was openly skeptical. Jennifer Palmieri has seen these kinds of crises before. She worked in the Clinton and Obama White Houses and was communications director for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: You know, different situation, you might want to talk this to death, you know, answer every question you possibly can answer and hope that you exhaust it.

KEITH: But right now, she says, communication strategy isn't the biggest concern. Foremost is not getting crosswise with the special counsel investigation. And there are also congressional Republicans to contend with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: They knew this has happened before the election. But they kept it a secret from the American public.

KEITH: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: Now we find another location that it's at. But he refused to answer. His press secretary won't answer the questions.

KEITH: Republicans are much more exercised about Biden's documents than those found at former President Trump's residence. A different special counsel is looking into that. But this case is quite different. While Biden's team passed off his documents like a hot potato, Trump hoarded files and misled investigators trying to get them back. Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, told NPR, this isn't great for Biden.

LEON PANETTA: You know, it's both an embarrassment and damaging to the credibility of the White House because, obviously, the president has criticized former President Trump and the way he handled classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

KEITH: Biden's counsel, Richard Sauber, said in a statement they believe that a thorough investigation will reveal that the documents were inadvertently mishandled.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.