By Sarah N. Lynch and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, Jan 12 (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed special counsel on Thursday to investigate the improper storage of classified documents at the home and former office of President Joe Biden, a process reminiscent of investigations into the administration of former President Donald Trump.
The investigation provides a distraction for the Democratic president, who has criticized his Republican predecessor’s handling of classified material, and could cast a shadow over Biden as the two prepare for a possible 2024 electoral rematch.
Garland said Robert Hur, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland under Trump, will act as a quasi-independent investigator to determine whether classified records from Biden’s time as vice president had been improperly stored at his Delaware residence and at a think tank in Washington.
Garland said Hur will examine “whether any person or entity violated the law.”
The White House said material was found in a garage at Biden’s home and in an adjacent room. He promised to cooperate with the investigation.
“We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the President and his attorneys acted expeditiously upon discovering this error,” White House counsel Richard Sauber said in a statement.
When asked by a journalist on Thursday about the advisability of keeping important material with his Corvette, the president – who declares himself a “car lover” – said that both were in a closed garage.
“It’s not like they’re on the street,” he said. “People know that I take classified documents and classified material seriously.”
Biden and Trump now face separate investigations by special prosecutors, who are often appointed to politically sensitive cases to ensure a degree of independence from the Justice Department leadership.
But their cases are not the same, legal experts say.
The White House said Biden’s lawyers found a small number of classified documents and turned them over after the presentation of evidence. Trump was reluctant to do so until an FBI search in August turned up about 100 classified documents, raising questions about whether Trump or his staff obstructed the investigation.
“The facts couldn’t be more different. The only similarity is that there were classified documents that were taken from the White House to another location,” said Kel McClanahan, head of National Security Counselors, a law firm.
The special counsel investigating Trump’s handling of documents is also leading inquiries into the Republican’s attempts to overturn his November 2020 election loss to Biden.
As sitting president, Biden faces fewer legal risks than Trump. He has ample leeway to declassify documents and he is likely to be shielded from prosecution, since the Justice Department rarely brings criminal charges against the occupant of the Oval Office.
Trump, by contrast, lost those protections when his term ended in January 2021.
Garland said he decided special counsel was needed in the Biden case after an initial investigation by John Lausch, who serves as the top federal prosecutor in the Chicago area and was appointed by Trump.
“This appointment underscores to the public the department’s commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters, and to making decisions unquestionably guided by facts and law alone,” Garland said at a news conference.
Hur, in a statement, said he would conduct the investigation impartially.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Jeff Mason, Jarrett Renshaw, and Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Will Dunham, Heather Timmons, and Grant McCool; Spanish editing by Tomás Cobos)