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A special counsel will probe government documents at Biden's home and private office

Robert Hur has been appointed as special counsel to investigate how classified documents came to be located at President Biden's Delaware residence and at a Washington, D.C., think tank office.
Steve Ruark
/
AP
Robert Hur has been appointed as special counsel to investigate how classified documents came to be located at President Biden's Delaware residence and at a Washington, D.C., think tank office.

Updated January 12, 2023 at 2:13 PM ET

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed a special counsel to investigate how classified documents came to be located at President Biden's Delaware residence and a think tank office in Washington he used for about three years.

Garland named former Justice Department official Robert Hur to conduct the high-profile inquiry after the White House confirmed that Biden's private attorneys found "a small number" of materials with classified markings both in storage in Biden's Wilmington, Del., garage and in an adjacent room as well as in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C. The attorneys said in both cases they turned over the Obama-Biden administration-era records to the National Archives.

The Justice Department said Hur is assigned to probe "possible unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or other records."

Hur released a statement promising to handle the probe "with fair, impartial, and dispassionate judgment." He said, "I intend to follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly, without fear or favor, and will honor the trust placed in me to perform this service."

Biden's counsel Richard Sauber said the president will cooperate fully with the special counsel.

"We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake," Sauber said in a statement.

A second special counsel

The move marks the second time the Justice Department has handed a politically sensitive probe to a quasi-independent lawyer in as many months. Last November, former war crimes prosecutor Jack Smith took control of the investigation into mishandling of government secrets and obstruction involving scores of documents the FBI seized at former President Donald Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. Smith will also lead the probe of certain "key aspects" of the Jan. 6 insurrection, including portions that could reach into Trump's inner circle.

Trump demanded Thursday that the special counsel investigation of his case be ended.

Biden told reporters at a news conference in Mexico this week that he wasn't sure what was in the materials found at the Penn Biden Center. "People know I take classified documents and classified information seriously," Biden said.

Republicans, newly empowered in the U.S. House of Representatives, immediately seized on the issue. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Oversight panel, wrote the White House and the Archives insisting that Biden receive equal treatment under the law. "The Committee is concerned that President Biden has compromised sources and methods with his own mishandling of classified documents," Comer wrote.

Justice Department regulations call for the appointment of special counsels when an investigation would present "a conflict of interest ... or other extraordinary circumstances." In the Mar-a-Lago case, Garland told reporters that Trump's 2024 presidential bid and Biden's expected decision to seek reelection helped convince him to call in an outsider.

Justice Department officials said the appointment of a special counsel in the Biden matter was likewise required under federal regulations. Garland said the appointment "underscores" DOJ's committment to accountability in "particularly sensitive matters."

Special counsels aren't under day-to-day supervision but they're required to explain their actions to the attorney general, who has the power to overrule the counsel but must notify Congress when that happens.

Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch, who was appointed during the Trump administration, and who's remained on the job into the Biden term, had been conducting an initial review of the Biden documents matter. He is planning to leave government service for the private sector this year, and thus couldn't continue work on the Biden documents.

Who is Robert Hur?

Most recently Hur has been in private law practice in Washington. He served as U.S. Attorney in Maryland from 2018 to 2021.

His positions at the Justice Department also included assistant U.S. Attorney in Maryland from 2007 to 2014 and principal associate deputy attorney general from 2017 to 2018.

Earlier in his career, Hur was a clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and later counsel to then-Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.