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Politics chat: What the DOJ investigation could mean for Biden

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This past week shaped up to be a tough one for President Biden. He's facing a Justice Department investigation after classified documents were found at his office in Washington, D.C., the one he used before he became president, as well as his Delaware home. And just yesterday, White House lawyers said they found more classified material there. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now.

Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what do we know about these documents other than the fact that they are classified?

KHALID: Well, we don't know a whole lot. The White House has not been particularly forthcoming about these documents. They've been vague about the timeline. And they only confirmed their existence after news reports. They really, you know, only started providing information after CBS News first broke the story on Monday. That's even though the first batch of classified documents were actually found a week before the midterms in a locked closet at a private office in D.C. that was used by President Biden after he left the vice presidency. The president himself said earlier this week that he was surprised by the existence of these documents. He did not know what was in them. But I will say, you know, this all escalated rather quickly. It's not just a Justice Department inquiry that's going on now. On Thursday, the attorney general announced that he's appointing a special counsel, which really does elevate the seriousness of this issue.

RASCOE: So things do seem to be moving pretty fast on this story, as you suggested. Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a former Justice Department official, Robert Hur, to lead the probe. And, you know, it took Garland months to assign one to the investigation looking into the documents found at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.

KHALID: You know, we do have a very strange situation, as you suggested there, where you now have both the former president and the sitting president who are both being investigated by a special counsel. The attorney general said this week that the appointment underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters. And Garland, you know, the attorney general, came into this job really wanting to restore the independence and trust that Americans have in the Justice Department as this nonpartisan institution. And the point of a special counsel is really to allow for independence from day-to-day Justice Department oversight. You know, it's meant to avoid any suggestion of interference. And that's what we see happening here, this desire to do that.

RASCOE: So what is Hur's mandate here? I mean, we are dealing with a sitting president. And as we learned in the last administration, it's not a lot that can be done to a sitting president.

KHALID: And, you know, to that point, I will say that the attorney general himself described the situation as being extraordinary circumstances. It is rather extraordinary, you know, to look into a sitting president. And the Justice Department has taken the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted. You know, I will say, though, Ayesha, you know, there are still questions, though, that remain about how classified documents came to be found in places that they were not supposed to be. And so the Department of Justice wants Hur to investigate the possible unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents found at two sites connected to President Biden. And that is essentially their mandate.

RASCOE: And how is the White House responding?

KHALID: Well, the White House insists that the president did not know about these documents. They also insist that they've been cooperating with the Justice Department and willingly sharing information with the DOJ as soon as they discovered the papers. They've said that they also plan to continue sharing information with the newly appointed special counsel. A White House lawyer said this week that they're, quote, "confident that a review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced and that the president and his team acted promptly upon discovering this mistake." But, you know, Ayesha, the reality is that I think as anybody who's sort of paid attention to some of the public conversation this week around this, I mean, the White House has created some of its own communication problems. They really were not particularly forthcoming. They've yet to explain, you know, why when they were explicitly asked about additional documents earlier in the week, they did not come forth and disclose that there were indeed more papers.

RASCOE: In about the 30 seconds we have left, there's legal consequences but political consequences. Republicans are threatening to look into this. What's going on with that?

KHALID: Yup, you're right. The Republicans have a House speaker. The newly Republican appointed House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, said this week that Congress has an obligation to do this. You know, the challenge for President Biden is that this document story has really taken over everything else. And it becomes this political liability when he's been mulling plans to announce his own reelection bid for presidency. Today, he's heading to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. He's going to be the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday sermon. And, you know, really, that speech has not gotten much attention over the weekend because of these classified documents.

RASCOE: That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid.

Thank you so much, Asma.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.