President Biden is on track to signal his reelection plans in the next few weeks, despite a self-inflicted classified documents controversy that has energized the GOP and put his political team on its heels.
“It’s still very much in the works and nothing has changed,” said one source familiar with the planning around the president’s forthcoming 2024 campaign bid.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the campaign groundwork say Biden intends to signal his intention to seek a second term after the State of the Union address on Feb. 7. A more formal declaration would come closer to the spring.
The classified documents discovery, which triggered the appointment of a special counsel last week by Attorney General Merrick Garland, has done nothing to change those plans, these sources said.
White House allies say Americans will prioritize issues like the economy over the technicalities surrounding the documents. In the coming months, they expect Biden to talk about the victories under his watch, including jobs numbers and a slowdown of skyrocketing inflation.
Democrats have expressed concerns behind the scenes that the classified materials story could be damaging to Biden.
“It’s the kind of thing that can consume a lot of oxygen,” said one Democratic strategist, who asked that their name be withheld to speak candidly. “You think it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, and maybe it isn’t, but it ends up overtaking much of the campaign.”
White House press briefings have been dominated by questions about the classified papers, including why the White House didn’t tell the public of the discovery until months after documents were initially found at Biden’s private office in Washington, D.C.
The White House sought to go on offense on Tuesday, conducting a 45-minute call with reporters, but it also led to more questions.
At the briefing on Wednesday, the White House continued to field questions on the matter, with reporters growing frustrated with the lack of details.
During one exchange, Peter Alexander of NBC News asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to invite Justice Department officials to the podium to answer questions. The White House has consistently referred questions to the Department of Justice.
“This is a legal matter that is currently happening at the Department of Justice and the president has been very, very clear when it comes to these types of legal matters when it comes to investigations,” Jean-Pierre said. “He’s not going to interfere but he wants to make sure that we give back the independence that the Department of Justice should have when it comes to these types of investigations. I certainly would not be bringing them here.”
The documents came from Biden’s time as vice president in the Obama administration. The White House Office of Counsel told the National Archives of the discovery of the documents on Nov. 2. The first news coverage came in the second week of January.
Republicans newly in charge of the House have dug into the story.
In a Jan. 18 letter to University of Pennsylvania President Mary Elizabeth Magill, House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) asked for information on who had access to the Penn Biden Center — where Biden’s office was located in the years following his vice presidency. He also asked for information by Feb. 1 on a visitor log of those who met with Biden at the think tank, security at the facility and any donations to the center that may link back to China.
The documents story shifted the political narrative from the messy House Speaker’s fight from the first week of January that had shown off the divide in the House GOP. It also complicated Democratic attacks on former President Trump, who has his own classified documents scandal to deal with.
The White House and Biden allies have fought back hard at the idea that the Biden and Trump controversies are the same, saying Biden and his team immediately notified the National Archives of the revelation while Trump resisted doing so.
“This is a false equivalency by House Republicans to try and paint them in a similar shade of corruption despite Biden’s lifetime of service to the country,” said Cooper Teboe, a Democratic strategist who works with a pro-Biden political action committee.
“No one should defend taking classified documents home,” Teboe said. “But the situations surrounding the Trump documents versus the Biden documents are worlds apart. President Biden immediately followed procedure upon his team’s discovery of the documents versus President Trump who personally took the documents home with him and tried to hide them for a year — right after his failed coup attempt.”
Since the story broke last week, the White House has tried to relay to the public that they handled the matter in the appropriate way, working to send the papers back to the National Archives. They say it’s a far cry from Trump’s handling of classified papers, prompting an FBI raid on Trump’s home.
Republican strategist Doug Heye said it’s too early to say if the storyline will hurt Biden’s reelection prospects, but he said it chips away at one of the president’s core promises: competency.
“It certainly gets in his way,” Heye said. “Part of it is, ‘Will there be more?’ That’s a very real feeling Democrats have.”
Another GOP operative put it differently.
“The documents issue won’t keep him from running, but it does complicate efforts to take a clean shot at Trump on his classified documents issue and gain a clear advantage on that front,” said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney. “Yes, the actions in question are very different in severity, but they are both degrees of bad.”