The White House, facing the first full day of the special counsel’s investigation, has sought to maintain a business-as-usual stance, highlighting what has become a central goal amid an uncertain and potentially dangerous new reality.
President Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to the White House, making good on a private promise two months ago, smiling as he ignored shouted questions directed at him about an investigation into classified documents found in his home and old private office.
A carefully choreographed presentation of warnings and statements from the Treasury Department, Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, and the White House — designed to set the stage for a looming battle with House Republicans over the need to raise the debt ceiling in the coming months — proceeded as planned.
Chief advisors held their weekly planning and strategy with external allies, as scheduled.
While a small group of Biden’s closest aides and lawyers inside and outside the administration have been quietly engaged in an intense effort to navigate the legal, political and messaging problems that have been thrust sharply to the fore in recent days, most inside the West Wing have little or no involvement and were trying to focus on one thing: Normality.
On Capitol Hill, where Democrats have vacillated between a public defense of Biden and the private pain of post-traumatic stress related to another top Democrat dealing with legal issues related to classified documents, at least one Democrat has joined the effort.
“Frankly, I don’t think we should focus too much on an issue that I honestly haven’t heard from a single person in the house that is their top concern,” Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and one of Biden’s closest allies, told CNN Manu Raju. “Their biggest concerns are prices at the pump, prices at the grocery store, gun violence, climate change, jobs, moving our economy forward.”
At the end of a week defined by a whirlwind of developments surrounding Biden’s handling of classified information after serving as vice president, it’s a goal that may seem aspirational at best.
Yet it is also what serves as a necessity for a White House where the vast majority of officials have no role in the team that manages the legal issues trumping their carefully crafted agendas and messages.
Biden’s advisers, reverting to a familiar posture honed on the campaign trail and defined by an all-hands-on-deck attitude fueled by criticism from the national media and the Twitter accounts they follow so closely, see the past few days as proof that Biden’s broader political goals and objectives won’t necessarily be stuck.
As senior White House advisers considered five days of stunning twists and turns, they said it would serve as a roadmap for their path forward, despite the spotlight of an investigation largely beyond their control.
They reiterated that the investigation will ultimately show that Biden’s lawyers took appropriate steps when the classified documents were discovered. There is neither advantage nor benefit, they note, in engaging in an issue that is an ongoing legal matter – a position that has been laid bare at every White House press briefing held since the first news.
During the week, although new developments emerged that repeatedly caught the Biden team off guard, they pointed to the fact that they were sticking to the strategic plan drawn up in the weeks leading up to the new year.
There was their first move of the new year on an issue with bipartisan overlap and clear political salience — laying out the broad outlines of potential big-tech reform through a Wall Street Journal opinion piece bearing the president’s byline.
Every new legislative effort by House Republicans has been met with an immediate and coordinated attack by Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill.
The South Korean solar panel maker’s announcement that it will invest $2.5 billion to build factories in Georgia marked the latest in tens of billions of dollars in new private sector investment spurred by new legislation signed by Biden. Drug price reductions, which had been mooted for months before their implementation, also began.
Senior administration officials participated in more than 100 regional and coalition interviews about Biden’s policy priorities during the week.
And on the day of the special prosecutor’s announcement, Biden’s top economic officials were repeatedly available for media appearances to mark the release of Consumer Price Index data that showed a sixth consecutive month of declining inflation.
National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, appearing on CNN less than an hour before Garland’s announcement that former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur would be appointed as special prosecutor, was asked if the legal issues were a distraction for Biden’s economic team.
“Absolutely not,” Deese said. “Our focus, the focus of the economic team, will be on the continued progress that we’ve made, and today is a good, positive development on the economic side, but it will increase our determination to do the work that we need to do on behalf of the American people to bring down prices, continue the economic recovery .”
Biden’s schedule also remained the same, including his own remarks about inflation numbers and the broader domestic economy. It was a speech that advisers saw as an important indicator for Biden — even if it was overshadowed by his willingness to engage in a question about his Corvette’s proximity to classified documents discovered in his garage.
Biden was still attending a memorial service for former Defense Secretary Ash Carter when the special prosecutor was officially appointed. Shortly after leaving, he will be informed of Hur’s deal.
For Biden, who entered this year almost certainly seeking re-election with a clear and carefully choreographed strategic plan to highlight his legislative victories — all while isolating and elevating House Republicans — it was a week in which it seemed every the next day shows just how quickly ground can be moved under carefully laid plans.
Still, senior White House advisers say they can stick with the plan, which earlier this week was considered both fully operational and critical to their political prospects in the coming year.
Whether the determination to stick with those plans as intended can be sustained as the investigation unfolds in the coming months remains to be seen.
But on the first day, when Biden left the White House as scheduled, his intention to try was clear.
He smiled and gestured toward reporters as he walked out onto the south lawn toward Marine One. But he ignored their shouted questions about the investigation.
A short time later, he will arrive at his home in Wilmington, Delaware – the same home where another batch of classified documents was discovered, an ever-present reminder of the investigation he and his advisers seem determined not to let get in the way of their plans.