NEW YORK – Virtually everything was going right for President Joe Biden as he opened the year.
His approval ratings were ticking up. Inflation was slowing. And as Democrats united behind his likely reelection campaign, Republicans were at war with themselves after a disappointing midterm season.
But on Thursday, Biden's political outlook veered into more uncertain territory after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the Democratic president's handling of classified documents.
Democrats publicly and privately conceded that the stunning development was at best an unwelcome distraction at an inopportune time that muddies the case against Donald Trump. The Republican former president is facing a special counsel of his own and is under federal criminal investigation for his handling of classified documents and other potential transgressions.
There are major differences between the two cases. Most notably, there is no suggestion that Biden purposefully tried to prevent the documents discovered at his home or office from being turned over or that he was even aware of their presence. Trump, who is being probed for potentially obstructing investigators, also had far more classified documents in his possession.
But Thursday's appointment of a special counsel nonetheless thrusts legal uncertainty over the sitting president and could revive debate among Democrats about the wisdom of him seeking a second term.
“No one’s going to say this is helpful,” veteran Democratic strategist James Carville said. “It’s pretty evident that’s not the case.”
As Democrats recoiled into a defensive posture, Trump's would-be Republican rivals in 2024 acknowledged that the contours of the upcoming race had shifted.
Trump “is the luckiest man in American politics,” said John Bolton, who served as national security adviser under Trump and is considering a Republican White House bid. “This ought to be disqualifying to both of them."
Thus begins a messy election season in which the current and former presidents of the United States are both under investigation by special counsels as they gear up for a potential rematch in 2024. Many voters in both parties were already calling for a new generation of leadership to emerge in the nascent presidential contest. Such calls are now growing louder.
“On many political fronts, Biden’s touted 2024 campaign is potentially vulnerable,” said Norman Solomon, a progressive Democrat who leads the so-called Don't Run Joe campaign, which is already running television ads against Biden in key states. “Democrats and the country as a whole would be much better off this year and next if he’s not running for president.”
The 80-year-old president has already indicated he plans to seek a second term, but he has yet to make a final decision. His allies believe he is likely to make a formal announcement after the end of March.
So far, at least, no high-profile Democrats appear willing to challenge Biden in a prospective presidential primary contest. Privately, however, some Democratic officials believe the new federal probe may help motivate an insurgent candidate.
One of Biden's potential challengers, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, recently told The Associated Press that he would make a decision about his 2024 intentions “at the appropriate time.” Nina Turner, who chaired Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, said after Thursday's announcement that she hopes a “freedom-fighting progressive” mounts a primary challenge against Biden in 2024.
“The American people certainly deserve better choices — Republicans and Democrats,” Turner said, applauding the government’s decision to review Biden’s handling of classified documents in the same way it's investigating Trump. “We shouldn't have these men shoved down our throats.”
Garland's appointment of a special counsel followed Biden’s acknowledgement Thursday morning that documents with classified markings from his time as President Barack Obama's vice president were found in the garage of his Delaware home and in his personal library, in addition to documents already discovered in a locked closet at an office he used after leaving the White House.
Garland said Biden’s lawyers informed the Justice Department on Thursday morning of the discovery of a classified document at Biden’s home, after FBI agents first retrieved other documents from the garage in December.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden said he was cooperating “fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review.”
“People know I take classified documents and classified material seriously,” Biden said. He added: “My Corvette’s in a locked garage.”
To be clear, there are stark differences between the cases, including the volume of documents discovered and the gravity of the ongoing grand jury investigation into the matter at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Palm Beach, Florida, home.
Roughly 300 records with classification markings were recovered from Mar-a-Lago, a private club that hosts constant events. The search of Trump’s property was the culmination of months of back-and-forth between the government and Trump’s representatives, who repeatedly resisted efforts to return the missing documents. And the Justice Department says classified documents were “likely concealed and removed” from a storage room as part of what they allege was an effort to obstruct the federal investigation.
A warrant for the search showed the FBI was investigating crimes including the willful retention of national defense information and efforts to obstruct the federal probe.
Trump has nonetheless seized on the news, seeking to use it to undermine the investigation into his actions.
“It’s over,“ Trump said in an interview with conservative talk radio host Mark Levin on Thursday evening. ”When all of these documents started coming out and Biden had them, it really changed the complexion and the intensity that they were showing to me because, you know, what they did is – I don’t say far worse, I did nothing wrong — what they did is not good. What they did is bad.”
Some Democrats were hopeful, but not certain, that voters might distinguish between Biden's cooperative approach involving a small trove of documents he apparently possessed by mistake and what federal prosecutors described as Trump's willful obstruction of hundreds of government secrets.
“It’s all the difference in the world between having something you don’t know you have and having something you know you have and aren’t supposed to have,” Carville said. “Is that going to get lost among a third of the country? Probably so.”
Bolton, a fierce Trump critic, predicted that the significant legal differences between the two cases would "get lost in the fog.” Now, he finds it hard to believe that Trump can be prosecuted for the Mar-a-Lago documents, regardless of the circumstances.
“I don’t see how a criminal case goes forward at this point,” Bolton said. “I just think it’s such a cloud over the prosecution.”
While the ground may have shifted, Trump’s legal challenges aren’t going to disappear.
Two months ago, Garland appointed former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor Jack Smith to lead investigations into the classified documents discovered at Mar-a-Lago as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
Federal prosecutors have been especially focused on a scheme by Trump allies to elevate fake electors in key battleground states won by Biden as a way to subvert the vote. They issued subpoenas to multiple state Republican Party chairmen.
Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin described the latest development as “certainly not ideal.”
“I think everyone would wish this hadn’t happened, including the president,” he said. “But it’s important to keep all of this in context: Everyone views President Biden as a far more responsible figure than Donald Trump. And that cannot be forgotten.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Norman Solomon.