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How the DOJ is investigating Biden's handling of classified documents when he was VP

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate President Biden's handling of classified documents. The documents are from the time that he was serving as vice president. And a small number of them were recently found in one of his offices and at his home in Wilmington, Del.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I strongly believe that the normal processes of this department can handle all investigations with integrity. But under the regulations, the extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter.

SUMMERS: This is the second special counsel Garland has appointed to look at the handling of these kinds of documents. The first is investigating former President Donald Trump for his activities around January 6 and also because hundreds of classified documents were found in Trump's home in Florida. White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins me now. Tam, why did Merrick Garland say that a special counsel was needed here?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Some of the documents were first discovered in early November, and by the middle of that month, Garland had already asked a prosecutor to conduct an initial investigation. He said today that that prosecutor ultimately told him that he thought a special counsel was warranted. The special counsel operates independently of day-to-day oversight from the Justice Department. And part of the goal with that special counsel law is to avoid even the appearance of interference. And given that President Biden is the president and he's likely running for reelection, this is exactly the kind of case the special counsel is designed for. The newly appointed special counsel is named Robert Hur, a career prosecutor who was appointed to his two most recent positions by former President Trump. And he said he will investigate fairly and quickly.

SUMMERS: Now, Attorney General Garland has laid out a very detailed timeline of how this whole investigation has unfolded thus far. What did you learn from that, and how does it compare to what you've heard from the White House?

KEITH: I think the best way to describe the way the White House has been sharing information about this issue is incomplete. Biden on Tuesday talked about documents that were found in an office maintained in Washington, D.C., after he was vice president. But he didn't say anything about additional documents we learned today were found in his home in a garage in Wilmington, Del. Today Garland said that the bulk of those documents were actually found on December 20. And one last one was turned over this morning. The White House has not explained why there was such a big, big gap in the public disclosure of the situation.

SUMMERS: And what about the president himself? What has he had to say about this?

KEITH: Well, he spoke to reporters this morning before Garland's announcement, and he did answer a question about the additional documents that were found. He said he and his team are fully cooperating, and he emphasized that as soon as the documents were found, they were turned over to the National Archives and the Justice Department. And that is in stark contrast to former President Trump, who refused to give back documents. He had his lawyer certify, falsely, that he didn't have any more, and in fact, he still had hundreds of them, which was revealed through a search warrant. But Biden was also a little bit defensive about the suggestion that he was keeping classified documents next to his Corvette in the garage.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My Corvette's in a locked garage. OK? So it's not like they're sitting out in the street.

KEITH: After Garland's announcement, White House counsel Richard Sauber put out a statement saying that they are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced.

SUMMERS: OK, so what happened here sounds quite different from former President Trump's mishandling of classified documents. But, Tam, like always, there is a big political question here.

KEITH: Oh, there is. It just creates a lot of room for questions. Congressional Republicans are making hay of this and saying that they will investigate Biden's mishandling of classified documents. They will be asking who had access to his garage and the other areas where the documents were stored and why this was kept from the public until after the midterms. You know, they were already planning to investigate President Biden. Now they've got another scandal that they can stoke.

SUMMERS: NPR's Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. 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.