Of the many questions swirling around the ongoing investigation of the classified government documents found at President Biden’s Delaware home and an office he used in Washington, perhaps the biggest one, for Democrats, is: How long is this investigation going to last? It’s not by any means a carbon copy situation, but consider: The initial FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago happened last August. So it’s been five months and that probe shows no signs of slowing down even as former President Trump is running for president. The Biden White House desperately wants to avoid the same situation.
Interviews with about a half-dozen national security, investigative, and legal experts yielded a general estimate that this investigation, barring more surprises, could likely last three to six months. But the key phrase there is “barring more surprises”: These experts cautioned that there’s still a great deal that the public does not know about the investigation. Nor do we know all the reasons that Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel.
The continuation of an active investigation means that Biden will likely find himself running for reelection—expectations are that he’ll announce sometime in February—while facing questions over how top secret documents ended up in his garage next to his Corvette. Republicans are eager to keep the topic alive. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even tied it to Biden’s son Hunter when responding to a reporter’s question.
“I don’t think it’s going to wrap up in days, and probably not weeks; I think it’s going to take several months. These special counsel investigations usually take a while to unfold,” said Javed Ali, a national security and intelligence expert who most recently served at the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Security Council. Ali added that “I think, conservatively, we’re talking three to six months.”
Others interviewed for this story simply shrugged, pointing out that the investigative part of the situation doesn’t have to take long at all. It really involves tracking down the staffers who likely were involved in packing up and moving papers during Biden’s transition from the vice presidency to post–White House life. These experts pointed to the timeline of events, explanations from Biden’s attorneys, and recent reporting suggesting that it probably wasn’t Biden himself hoarding documents or refusing to hand them over to the National Archives à la Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
That means that investigating this should involve tracking down and interviewing a very defined set of Biden staffers and officials. “I think it’s obviously a pretty simple case that’s just going to involve talking to the staffers involved in, first, packing Biden out of the White House and then secondly maintaining the records at the place where they’ve been located,” said Brian Greer, a former CIA lawyer who runs an indispensable Twitter account on national security.
Neil Eggleston, a former White House counsel under President Obama, said he could see this investigation wrapping up in “a matter of weeks” or months. “This seems to be an investigation that could be conducted quite quickly. There are just not that many people for [special counsel Robert] Hur to talk to. There’s whoever did the packing; maybe more than one person who supervised the packing,” Eggleston said. “They’ll want to talk to whoever transported the boxes either to the Penn Center or to Wilmington. Pretty sure that that person will say he or she didn’t look at the boxes, and then there’ll be some interviews in connection to how were they found in November and why were they found and how did all that come up? But this seems to me to be a very limited number of people who need to be interviewed, so my view is that could all happen quickly.”
The Biden White House has not handled the matter adroitly from a P.R. perspective. Biden himself as well as his communications team have struggled to answer basic questions about the documents and how they got there. At the same time, the Biden legal team has been forthcoming with investigators and the public. In a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Ian Sams, a special assistant to the president and a senior adviser to the White House Counsel’s Office, opened the Q&A session by saying Biden “takes classified information seriously. That’s why as soon as the initial documents were discovered, he directed his team to ensure that any materials were properly returned to the government.”
It’s clear that White House officials know there are political perils looming over the investigation the longer it drags out and if yet another set of documents is discovered. As White House officials have responded to questions about the classified documents, they’ve also pointed to how Republicans have been responding. On Monday, Sams emailed reporters pointing out the different ways Republicans responded to the Trump document situation and the Biden document situation.
“House Republicans have no credibility. Their demands should be met with skepticism, and they should face questions themselves about why they are politicizing this issue and admitting they actually do not care about the underlying classified material,” Sams said in a statement in that email.
If this investigation goes on for another three or six months, Democrats will be in the awkward position of making similar statements as the 2024 presidential campaign gears up. Trump, DeSantis, and other would-be candidates are almost certain to bring up the Biden documents investigation, not only in response to any attacks about Trump’s handling of classified documents but also as a way to paint Biden and his family as serially corrupt.
By the summer or fall of 2023, though, there could be more. Ali said that the fact that Garland appointed a special prosecutor makes him wonder if there may be more to this probe than just a few documents. “You’re not going to launch a special counsel investigation just for bad record handling,” he said. “The National Archives could’ve cleaned up that mess. So there had to have been something else that Garland thought was important enough to make that move.”
Twists like that are what make this case particularly perilous for the White House. “Mishandling of classified information happens quite a bit and is a major problem within the federal government,” Greer said. “Things on the level of what Biden did [are] definitely more unusual. Having 20 documents in three different locations—that’s not normal at all.”
At this point it’s safe to say there’s no quick fix to this secret documents situation for Biden. The documents are an obvious and likely effective talking point for Republicans going into the 2024 presidential election. Prior to this, the Biden team was riding high on retaining control of the Senate and chaos in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. All of that is still there, but now Republicans have an attack line that Democrats can’t easily defuse. And there’s the possibility that more revelations will emerge. After all, when special counsels start turning over rocks, they rarely stop.