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White House shifts into damage control mode as document scandal worsens

(CNN) — The White House is scrambling to catch up to the classified documents controversy and to blunt a Republican effort to pin down President Joe Biden and get former President Donald Trump off the hook in his own secret records drama.

Biden’s aides spent the weekend trying to clamp order on a misfiring communications strategy that worsened the impact of the discovery of vice presidential documents in his home in Delaware and former office.

But now, under a special counsel investigation, they face the possibility of fresh searches that potentially risk the politically explosive uncovering of more documents as a rampant new Republican House majority whips up the storm. Biden, meanwhile, is growing increasingly frustrated over his plight, according to new CNN reports.

The stakes could not be higher for the president as he struggles to get a grip on the situation. In the short-term, the documents flap has drowned out a run of favorable events, including a moderate cooling of inflation, that he hoped to use as a launchpad for a reelection bid he is expected to announce soon. The clumsy White House public relations strategy over around 20 documents squandered any hope of drawing a sharp line between Biden’s cooperation with the authorities and Trump’s months of resistance and obfuscation over his haul of hundreds of pages of classified material.

Now that Biden, like Trump, faces a special counsel probe, the White House is under extreme pressure to prevent the classic scenario of one small scandal setting off tributary investigations leaking into other areas that could consume the Biden presidency.

The president’s hopes of this just being an early 2023 blip depend on several key questions now facing an outpaced White House that has found definitive answers difficult.

  • Are there more documents waiting to be discovered that could multiply the political impact of the controversy?
  • Will there be more searches following the discovery of sets of documents in a former office used by Biden after his vice presidency and at his home?
  • Who would conduct any such searches? Biden’s lawyers? Or will the FBI also be involved, considering that a special counsel was appointed last week by Attorney General Merrick Garland to avoid the appearance of political interference?
  • Given that the first set of documents was found in November, why has it taken so long to search other potential locations in which vice presidential records, including potentially classified files, could be found? The pace of searches by Biden’s team concerned the US attorney’s office in Chicago that originally looked into the matter, a source close to the investigation told CNN’s Evan Perez.
  • How quickly and effectively can House Republicans use this drama to add fuel to one of their priorities — creating a narrative of corruption and shadiness around Biden’s family and his son Hunter’s business interests?
  • Will a so-far sluggish White House communications effort be able to turn the clear hypocrisy of the GOP, which didn’t care about Trump’s larger documents haul, into a broader political message that can paint the House majority as extreme ahead of the 2024 election?

These questions could help determine whether this is another Washington scandal that leaves voters cold because it does not necessarily equate with their top priorities or whether the response creates a wider impression of incompetence and chaos that could do long-term damage.

Biden frustrated at the turn in his fortunes

Inside a White House increasingly under siege, Biden has chafed at how the documents story has dampened a political jolt he received after staving off a disastrous red Republican wave in November’s midterm elections.

CNN’s White House team reported a mood of quiet resignation in the West Wing as aides wait to see if more classified documents will surface among Biden’s papers, dating to his time as vice president in the Obama administration.

As is often the case in such circumstances, there is a clear tension between the strategies that might be advocated by the president’s lawyers, who are obligated to steer him clear of criminal liability, and the needs of a public relations approach designed to dent the political damage.

So while saying nothing about the initial discovery of documents in the vice presidential office in November until the story emerged earlier this month might have made sense legally, it was a political approach that was unsustainable.

Then, not revealing that some more documents had been found when Biden spoke about the issue last week only made the situation worse because it made it look as though he had something to hide. More discoveries would make the mess worse.

“On this particular story, they just don’t look good,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who is now a CNN political analyst.

“They are in between a rock and a hard place and the critical mistake was in fact, the drip, drip, drip,” Axelrod told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “The essence of crisis communications is — figure out where the story is going, get there as soon as possible, get there as thoroughly as possible.”

There are signs that a harried White House is beginning to shift its strategy. Over the weekend, for instance, Richard Sauber, a senior White House lawyer, said in a statement that five additional pages of documents had been found at Biden’s Wilmington residence last week. The move appeared to be an attempt to get ahead of a damaging revelation and not to wait for it to be reported by journalists.

On Monday, the White House counsel’s office pushed back on Republican demands for more details, saying that there were no visitor logs for Biden’s private home. The GOP had demanded such material as they seek to quickly expand their investigations. The Secret Service also said the presidential protective agency does not keep such records.

But Republican House Majority Leader Steve Scalise signaled how contentious the current showdown will get when he warned: “Just because they said it, you don’t just take their word for it.”

The disclosure to journalists that Biden was feeling frustrated by the handling of the documents drama may in itself be an attempt at damage control and to insulate the president from more political exposure. But it remains to be seen if the administration is yet at a point when it can begin to dictate the terms of the story.

More days of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre being assailed by questions in the Briefing Room and not being able to provide in-depth answers is hardly likely to help the president’s case. His own comments also appeared to deepen his plight last week — including when he quipped that documents found in his garage were secure because it was locked to keep his beloved Corvette safe.

Settling on a convincing mitigation strategy will be crucial to deciding how the Biden classified documents affair plays to the wider public.

Republican double standards

One goal of Washington Republicans is to maximize Biden’s discomfort and to use his problems with documents to undercut any eventual rationale for charging Trump criminally over retaining classified documents or obstruction.

The two special counsel probes are separate and Trump looks to have far more legal peril. But in the heat of an election campaign in which both are likely candidates, it is hard in a practical sense to see how the ex-president could be prosecuted over classified documents while a case hangs over his successor.

On the face of it, Republicans are guilty of gross hypocrisy since few of them cared about Trump’s refusal to hand over a much larger trove of classified material — a stance that led to a court-approved search that netted more than 100 documents. But now that Biden is embarrassed by the discovery of a smaller haul, the Republican majority in the House is going into overdrive. House Oversight Chairman James Comer, for instance, said last year that Trump’s situation was not a priority but has been aggressive in targeting Biden.

“We just want equal treatment here with respect to how both former President Trump and current President Biden are being treated,” the Kentucky Republican told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday, accusing Democrats of double standards.

Unlike Trump, there is no sign, however, that Biden has in any way sought to hide documents once they were discovered or to obstruct their return to the government as required by law when a senior official leaves the executive branch.

If the White House can get a handle on the narrative, it could use the discrepancies between the Biden and Trump approaches to limit political damage for the president and begin to create a counter-attack designed to show Republicans covering for an unpopular ex-president.

But after the last week, that remains a big if.