Experts weigh in on Biden's response to classified documents scandal: White House has 'lost control'

Experts weigh in on Biden's response to classified documents scandal: White House has 'lost control'

Communications experts say the Biden administration has “lost control of the narrative” after recent revelations that President Biden had classified documents in multiple unsecured locations.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has continued to dodge questions on the matter, leading some to criticize the Biden administration for lack of clarity on the situation.

President Biden “does indeed take classified information seriously, he does indeed take classified documents seriously. I’m just not going to go beyond that,” Jean-Pierre said in a Friday press briefing – a line the press secretary has echoed at the podium since the scandal surfaced. 

Communications experts weighing in on the White House’s response since knowledge of Biden’s classified documents came to light in early January say that the administration’s response has been lackluster.  

“Whether through intent or incompetence, the White House has been behind the curve throughout this entire scandal,” said Marc Lotter, former director of strategic communications for Trump-Pence 2020. “They have lost control of the narrative. Simply wishing it would just go away while deflecting clearly isn’t working.”

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President Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 19, 2022. 

President Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 19, 2022.  (Susan Walsh)

In recent weeks, revelations that Biden had Obama-era classified documents in his personal possessions came to light. Classified materials were first revealed to be stored in Biden’s office at the Penn Biden center in Washington, D.C. Three days later, the public learned of a second set of files that existed in the garage of Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home. A third set of classified documents were also uncovered in another location in his Wilmington home.

“President Biden is dealing with a ‘drip’ controversy that has no end in sight and each new revelation makes his criticisms of former President Trump appear ever more hypocritical,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican media strategist. 

“When it comes to legal issues, the White House has to be very careful to not intervene politically in this type of investigation. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the issue. There’s a fine line that Biden and the White House need to walk on,” says Jose Aristimuño, former deputy press secretary to the Democratic National Committee and Host of Americano Media.

Alex Conant, former communications director to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, believes the White House should be in full on crisis mode, suggesting they assign a dedicated communicator on the issue to get the facts straight, mobilize resources and stay ahead of the story. 

“Crisis communications 101 is to get all the facts out as soon as possible. The White House has done the opposite of that, letting news drip out day after day. The President should have addressed this directly days ago,” Conant told Fox News Digital. “Waiting until Thursday and then giving a very lawyerly statement only feeds the scandal.”

Though Republicans and Democrats have criticized the White House response on the issue, many on the left have commended the Biden administration’s cooperation with authorities. Christy Seltzer, a former spokesperson to numerous Democratic leaders, said the story on balance “isn’t a bad one.”

“Biden’s team did everything right by flagging that they’d found documents and then giving them back,” Seltzer said. “Typically, in situations like these, the communications strategy must follow the legal strategy, so the lawyers are likely driving what White House communications can and can’t say.”

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A former Trump White House official supported Seltzer’s sentiment, sympathizing that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is likely only receiving partial facts. At the same time, Jean-Pierre’s repeated referrals to the White House Counsel’s office seem to be a scapegoat to avoid tough questioning, according to the source who says the counsel’s office will traditionally defer to the White House Press Secretary for official statements.  

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced numerous questions related to Biden's classified documents during Friday's daily press briefing.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre faced numerous questions related to Biden’s classified documents during Friday’s daily press briefing. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“Democrat spokespeople normally live a charmed existence,” said Matt Gorman said, a former communications director to the National Republican Congressional Committee. “When the mainstream media dare to question them on anything their reaction wavers between betrayal and outright confusion. That’s what you see here.”

Many questions remain unanswered on the exact whereabouts of the classified files, when they were placed among Biden’s possessions and who might have had access, outside of Biden’s family and staff. 

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The Department of Justice has launched an inquiry into the documents, appointing Robert Hur, a former Maryland U.S. attorney, to serve as special counsel overseeing the process.