A special counsel has been appointed to investigate the discovery of classified documents in US President Joe Biden’s home and former Washington office.
US attorney general Merrick Garland announced that Robert Hur, the former Trump-appointed US attorney for the district of Maryland, will lead the investigation.
Mr Hur will take over from the top Justice Department prosecutor in Chicago, John Lausch, who was earlier assigned to the case.
“The extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter,” Mr Garland said, adding that Mr Hur is authorised to investigate whether any person or entity violated the law.
“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,” Mr Garland said.
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Following his appointment, Mr Hur said: “I will conduct the assigned investigation with fair, impartial and dispassionate judgment.
“I intend to follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly, without fear or favour and will honour the trust placed in me to perform this service.”
Before he became the US attorney for the district of Maryland, Mr Hur served as a special assistant and counsel to Christopher Wray, then assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Mr Wray is now the director of the FBI.
Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said: “We have cooperated closely with the Justice Department throughout its review, and we will continue that cooperation with the special counsel.
“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.”
The classified documents from the Obama administration were found in Mr Biden’s garage at his personal home in Wilmington, Delaware.
The political fallout is already taking shape from questions unanswered around the Biden documents
There’s a Biden 2020 campaign ad that plays a cameo in all of this.
The one where Joe reverses his green Corvette into a garage at his home in Wilmington, Delaware.
Inside, he measures the distance between the vehicle and boxes of belongings, possibly papers, piled to one side.
Is it the actual garage? Are we looking at the actual documents, classified from his days as vice-president?
In truth, it’s impossible to tell. In time, special counsel Robert Hur will want to know.
Because if it is the garage and these are the documents, then it’s a YouTube celebration of Presidency as Pantomime; the Commander-in-Chief reverse-parking between the lines of classified secrets.
A jaw-dropping affront to national security laid bare on social media. And yet it fits with the story told by the White House.
‘Inadvertently misplaced’ was the description of Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president. Basically, it was an innocent mistake – incompetence, maybe, but not a crime.
On the face of it, that is where the story might have ended. Simple possession of classified documents isn’t usually subject to prosecution – it’s typically elevated to a crime only with an aggravating factor.
The factor aggravating the case treatment of one president is, of course, the handling of another.
Having appointed a special counsel to investigate Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents, US attorney general Merrick Garland could scarcely ignore Republican calls for a similar approach to the Biden case.
On both occasions, this Biden appointee has aggressively preached independence, accountability and batted away accusations of a conflict of interest in his justice department.
The White House insists there is no equivalence in these two cases; they contrast one in which a handful of classified documents were found and immediately handed over with another in which several hundred were discovered and their recall resisted.
Where the legal investigations take us will become clear, in time, but the political fallout is already taking shape from questions unanswered around the Biden documents.
Chief among them is why, when the documents were first discovered on 2 November 2022, 6 days before the midterm elections, are the public finding out about it now?
It’s one of a number of curiosities around the Biden finds that have given traction to Republicans who draw parallels between this case and that of Trump.
As legal enquiries continue, they see benefit in a political context that’s clouded further. You can write the script now for Republican reaction to a mismatch in the outcomes – dust off ‘political witch hunt’ for starters.
Proper legal work pays no heed to outside pressure, of course. But in this tale of two presidents, two special counsels and two investigations, are the politics too big to ignore?
Mr Biden’s lawyer has said in a statement that the discovery was made up of a “small number” of records and all-but-one were found in a storage space in the garage. The other was in a room next door.
The lawyer said that the Department of Justice was immediately notified and the documents handed over.
The statement added: “As we stated previously, we are fully cooperating with the National Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in possession of the Archives.”
It comes after the White House said on Monday that the US Justice Department was reviewing a batch of potentially classified documents found in the Washington office space of the president’s former institute.
Mr Biden had kept an office there after he left the vice presidency in 2017 until shortly before he launched his 2020 presidential campaign in 2019.
The president’s aides have since been searching for any additional classified materials that may be in other locations he used, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details about the ongoing inquiry.
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A source told NBC News that Mr Biden’s aides have been sifting through documents stored at locations beyond his former Washington office to determine if there are any other classified documents that need to be turned over to the National Archives and reviewed by the Justice Department.
The search was described as exhaustive, with the goal of getting a full accounting of all classified documents that may have inadvertently been packed in boxes when Biden cleared out of the vice president’s office space in January 2017.
The initial documents were found on 2 November 2022 in a “locked closet” in the office, Mr Sauber said.
He added that the lawyers immediately alerted the White House Counsel’s Office, which notified the National Archives and Records Administration and subsequently took custody of the documents the next day.
“Since that discovery, the president’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives,” Mr Sauber said.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden told reporters that he was “surprised” by the discovery, and that he didn’t know what was in the documents.
For months, the Justice Department has been investigating the retention of roughly 300 classified documents that were recovered from the Florida estate of Donald Trump.
Prosecutors have interviewed an array of Mr Trump’s associates and have been using a grand jury to hear evidence.
It remains unclear when a decision will be made on whether Mr Trump, or anyone else, should be charged over the papers.