'Whatever access you need': How Biden handled early days of classified documents probe

Biden’s degree of cooperation appears to stand in contrast with Trump's conduct.

November 14, 2023, 6:40 PM

When National Archives officials approached attorneys for President Joe Biden in the fall of 2022 seeking access to government records he still had in his possession -- some of which, they had learned, might contain classified information -- the archivists appeared to face little resistance.

"In terms of taking custody to any papers, yes, we are prepared to facilitate whatever access you need to accomplish NARA taking custody of whatever materials it seems appropriate," wrote Patrick Moore, a onetime personal attorney for the president, at the time.

Other correspondence between Biden's lawyers and the National Archives in November 2022 includes equally cooperative sentiments: Moore repeatedly used expressions such as "at your convenience," and "I can be reached any time on my cell."

Moore facilitated a search of the Washington, D.C.-based Penn Biden Center for National Archives staff, according to emails. He even helped them secure entry and parking at the facility.

"We can have access to the Penn Biden Center at your convenience tomorrow from just after 9 am through 4 pm or so (though we may ask the Center to facilitate access beyond that time if needed -- these were just the times initially communicated to me)," Moore wrote in a Nov. 8, 2022, email to National Archives officials. "If Wednesday is preferred, we can facilitate that, too."

The same day, emails show, Moore helped coordinate the transportation of nine additional boxes from his Boston law office to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for safekeeping.

Those messages and others emerged Monday as part of a new batch of records related to the government's earliest efforts to determine whether Biden had inappropriately retained classified information when he left the vice presidency in 2017.

President Joe Biden speaks about climate change in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Nov. 14, 2023, in Washington.
Susan Walsh/AP

The National Archives' efforts later evolved into a special counsel investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, which remains ongoing. ABC News previously reported that Hur has interviewed as many as 100 witnesses in the probe, including President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The newly released records further demonstrate the contrast in how Biden's team handled inquiries from the archivists compared to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who allegedly resisted government efforts to retrieve documents that could include closely guarded national secrets.

Federal prosecutors have accused Trump of deliberately withholding records he knew to be classified from investigators with the National Archives and later the FBI. Special counsel Jack Smith in June filed a 37-count indictment against Trump related to the matter, to which Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Trump has sought to link his circumstances to Biden's by trying to draw an equivalence between their conduct and calling his prosecution the result of a justice system improperly targeting Republicans.

But the records released Monday by the National Archives add to a growing body of evidence showing that the former president and the current president handled government outreach in completely different manners.

Sarah Isgur, a former Department of Justice spokesperson, said "one big difference" between Trump's and Biden's legal situation has to do with the discrepancy in their cooperation.

Former President Donald Trump disembarks his airplane as he heads to speak an event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, in Newark, N.J. on June 13, 2023, following a first court appearance at Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, in Miami.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"There would be no classified documents probe if Trump had simply given back the documents after they were discovered at Mar-a-Lago," said Isgur, now an ABC News contributor.

"Biden's team clearly hopes cooperation will bolster their defense that this was all inadvertent," Isgur said. "But for Trump, it's part of his political and legal strategy at this point to fight back on all fronts. Cooperation may have been legally wise a year ago, but at this point, the cake is baked."

The government's efforts to retrieve the documents held by Trump began in early 2022 when officials with the National Archives said they had retrieved 15 boxes of presidential records that Trump had "improperly" taken to his Mar-a-Lago estate after leaving the White House.

The former president had allegedly refused to give back some additional boxes to the Archives, according to an indictment filed by the special counsel, and at least on one occasion allegedly asked staff to not look for any classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump was then subpoenaed for the return of additional documents authorities said he still possessed, but prosecutors say that he rebuffed those overtures.

In June 2022, federal agents visited Mar-a-Lago to search for additional materials, after which prosecutors said an attorney for Trump signed a statement attesting that all classified documents at Mar-a-Lago had been turned over to federal investigators.

Two months later, FBI agents raided the South Florida estate and found more than 100 additional documents with classified markings that had not been turned over.