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Here's what we know about the classified documents found at Biden's home and office

President Biden pictured at his home office in his private residence in Wilmington, Del., in 2021. This week, the Department of Justice announced that improperly stored classified documents had been discovered at the president's Wilmington home.
Adam Schultz
President Biden pictured at his home office in his private residence in Wilmington, Del., in 2021. This week, the Department of Justice announced that improperly stored classified documents had been discovered at the president's Wilmington home.

Updated January 14, 2023 at 2:20 PM ET

President Biden is facing a Department of Justice investigation after his lawyers found classified documents at his Delaware residence and an office in Washington, D.C.

They were found in multiple instances, with a White House lawyer announcing on Saturday that five more pages had been found at Biden's home.

On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed former Justice Department official Robert Hur to lead the DOJ probe.

"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 Thursday.

The announcement came just a few days after news broke that classified documents had been found at Biden's private office less than a week before the midterm elections in November — a discovery that led the DOJ to launch an initial inquiry.

The White House has said it has cooperated with the DOJ during its review and plans to continue working with Hur's special counsel investigation.

"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," said Richard Sauber, a White House lawyer, in a statement.

Here's what we know about the Biden documents so far:

On four occasions, classified documents were found at Biden's private residence and a D.C. office he used before becoming president.

Early last November, Biden's personal lawyers were packing files from an office he had in Washington for his work at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think-tank founded by the University of Pennsylvania.

There, in a "locked closet," the White House said, they discovered some classified files that should not have been there. The documents were turned over to the National Archives.

Then, on Nov. 4, the National Archives inspector general informed the Department of Justice of the discovery. By mid-November, Garland had tapped John Lausch, a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney in Chicago, to oversee an assessment of the materials.

On Dec. 20, Biden's personal counsel Robert Bauer informed Lausch that another set of documents had been found that day in the garage of Biden's private home in Wilmington, Del. Those documents were soon secured by the FBI.

On Jan. 11 — two days after CBS News broke a story about the documents — Biden's personal attorneys searched his homes in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach. They found one classified document at Biden's Wilmington home.

On Thursday, the White House described the review as being over. "The search is complete," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

But on Saturday, Sauber, the White House lawyer, said he had found five more pages at Biden's Wilmington home on Thursday when he was working with DOJ officials to hand over what he had days earlier described as one final page of classified material.

The White House says it was unintentional and that they will cooperate fully.

Biden has said that he takes the handling of classified information seriously and that he is "cooperating fully and completely" with the Justice Department.

The White House has said Biden does not know the content of the documents.

Still, the White House was hardly forthcoming about the existence of a second set of documents. When it confirmed the first discovery in the D.C. office, there was no mention of the second batch recovered in Delaware. It was only after news reports that revealed the later discovery did the White House acknowledge it.

On Saturday, Sauber explained that Biden's personal lawyers — led by Bob Bauer — had been conducting the searches of Biden's home. Those lawyers did not have security clearances. So when they had found a classified document on Wednesday, they stopped searching that area, he said.

It wasn't until Thursday evening when Sauber, who has a security clearance, went to Wilmington with DOJ officials to give them the final document that they found five additional pages of classified materials, he said.

We don't know what was in the documents, or how many were found.

The documents are classified, so they have not been publicly described, beyond that they were records that dated to Biden's time as vice president during the Obama administration.

A special counsel will oversee the investigation.

On Thursday, Attorney General Garland appointed a special counsel to take charge of the DOJ's investigation, calling the events "extraordinary circumstances." The investigation will be conducted following the department's rules, but the special counsel operates independently of day-to-day oversight from the Justice Department — an arrangement designed to avoid even the suggestion of interference.

Hur, the special counsel, is a longtime prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland from 2018 to 2021, at the appointment of then-President Donald Trump. He has previously worked on a variety of national security, public corruption and corporate fraud cases.

The Hur appointment follows Garland's decision last November to tap former war crimes prosecutor Jack Smith as special counsel in a pair of cases involving Trump, including his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, criticized the Biden administration over its handling of the classified document situation in a press conference Thursday.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Getty Images
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, criticized the Biden administration over its handling of the classified document situation in a press conference Thursday.

Critics have accused Biden of hypocrisy and say he should have acknowledged the discovery sooner.

Critics of Biden, including many Republicans, have seized on the revelations to raise new complaints about the Biden administration's handling of the Trump classified document saga, including the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago.

"Another faux pas by the Biden administration by treating law differently based upon your political beliefs. Treats President Trump one way but treats President Biden a whole different way," said Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in a press conference Thursday.

McCarthy and others have also said that Biden should have disclosed the discovery sooner: The first documents were discovered on Nov. 2, just six days before last fall's midterm elections.

Republicans have already vowed to use their new House majority to probe Biden's handling of the classified documents and how federal agencies responded.

On Friday, Republican House Judiciary members sent a letter to the attorney general announcing their inquiry into the handling of the documents and the appointment of Hur. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., demanded "all documents and communications" between the DOJ, FBI and White House related to the "mishandling of the classified documents" and the appointment of the special counsel.

Trump himself has hammered Biden over the documents on his social media site, Truth Social.

There are parallels with the Trump classified documents saga, but the two situations are not identical.

The Presidential Records Act requires that all presidential (and vice presidential) documents be turned over to the National Archives upon the end of an administration. Other rules govern the storage of classified documents.

Now, both presidents have run afoul of those rules.

But from what we know so far, there are already important differences between how the two have handled their respective situations.

In Trump's case, the National Archives was the first to identify the missing documents and request their return.

Trump initially resisted returning them, and his lawyers at times misled federal investigators. After months of back-and-forth between the government and Trump aides, 15 boxes of documents were returned in January 2022. According to the FBI, the boxes included 184 classified documents, including 25 marked "Top Secret," as well as others denoted with labels indicating they contained national security information, such as "FISA." But more documents still remained at Mar-a-Lago, and ultimately the FBI raided the resort in August to retrieve the rest.

By contrast, Biden's team appears to have found a smaller number of documents, and returned them to the federal government promptly.

Still, the revelations about improperly stored documents and the appointment of a special counsel are an "embarrassment" to the Biden administration, said Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration and as secretary of defense under President Obama.

"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," Panetta said in an interview with NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.