US President Joe Biden
SHAWN THEW / EPA
US Attorney General Merrick Garland's performance lasted just six and a half minutes.
It was enough to make life difficult for his boss, Joe Biden, in the long run.
He hereby announces "in the public interest" the appointment of an additional special counsel to investigate "whether any person or entity has broken the law in this matter," Garland read stiltedly from the teleprompter.
"This thing": This is the latest escalating secret files scandal in Washington, at the center of which is the incumbent US President.
A few hours earlier, the second find of confidential state documents in Biden's possession had come to light, this time in his private garage in the US state of Delaware.
At the beginning of the week, the White House had already confirmed under pressure that almost a dozen secret documents from his time as Barack Obama's vice president had also been discovered in Biden's former think tank office.
A third Biden property in the resort of Rehoboth Beach was also searched, according to Garland, but apparently nothing was found there.
Robert Hur, the former US Attorney for Maryland, is now assigned as a special counsel independent of Garland to investigate how these papers ended up in places where they don't belong, why they sat there for almost six years - since Biden left as vice president in 2017 - and who is responsible for it.
Actually, all files of former governments belong in the US National Archives.
The White House insists that the incriminating Biden papers were "accidentally" taken after he left.
Garland's decision had been expected.
Nevertheless, the political situation in Washington is becoming increasingly bizarre. Two
special investigators appointed by Garland are now
meticulously examining the private custody of US state secrets.
Another special counsel, Jack Smith, has been investigating since last year how Biden's predecessor Donald Trump was able to hoard more than 300 government files in his private club Mar-a-Lago in Florida after leaving office.
Since Trump announced a renewed presidential candidacy for 2024, Garland had no choice but to install a special counsel for Biden as well, so as not to give the appearance of Trump being disadvantaged.
Trump's scandal is - still - much heavier, since there are far more documents involved and Trump has refused to release them for months.
Nevertheless, for Biden, what initially looked like stupid sloppiness escalates into a political problem.
So far, unlike Trump, he had been able to avoid such scandals as president.
But now he is guaranteed negative headlines, and of all things at a time when he is also preparing to run for president again – against Trump.
For the first time a detailed timeline
At the conclusion of his investigation, Hur will make a recommendation as to whether and against whom criminal proceedings should be instituted.
The final decision rests with Garland.
The longer this goes on, the more of a campaign concern for Democrats, especially since Republicans should keep the issue alive for as long as possible.
This is reminiscent of the 2016 election campaign, when the FBI investigated Hillary Clinton – which also involved dealing with state secrets.
For the first time, Garland presented a detailed timeline of when what was found where and by whom.
However, this raised further questions, since the White House had known about the finds internally for a long time, but kept them secret.
Even as it admitted the first find this week, no word was heard from the White House about the December discovery.
Biden has lived in Wilmington, Delaware, a two-and-a-half hour drive northeast of Washington, since he was a child.
Even as President, he spends most weekends there.
The train station from which he used to take the train to Washington as a senator bears his name.
According to Garland, the files in the garage are classified as general confidentiality.
But he didn't say what level.
There are three levels of secrecy for government files: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.
Shortly before Garland's statement, Richard Sauber, an advisor to Biden, had confirmed media reports about the second file find: Biden lawyers had found a "small number" of secret "Obama -Biden Government Documents« discovered.
It was only revealed on Monday that around a dozen government documents from his time as Vice President had surfaced in November at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank founded by Biden in Washington in 2018, apparently including "intelligence service memos and briefing material" about Ukraine, Iran and Great Britain.
Some would have been marked “SCI” (“Sensitive Compartmented Information”), which is used to stamp highly confidential intelligence information.
"This office was not authorized to hold confidential documents," Garland said Thursday.
"The committee is concerned"
Hur has a good standing with the Conservatives, which Garland certainly wants to dampen the storm of criticism from the Republicans.
He was appointed US Attorney by Trump in 2017.
As such, he made a name for himself by, among other things, indicting Democrat Catherine Pugh, the ex-Baltimore mayor, of corruption;
Pugh was sentenced to three years in prison.
Hur also oversaw several terrorism trials and the trials of two former NSA employees who stole NSA files and stored them at home;
both received long prison sentences.
After Biden took office in 2021, Hur moved to a private practice.
The new head of the Oversight Committee in the US House of Representatives, Republican James Comer, announced his own investigation.
"The committee is concerned that President Biden's mishandling has compromised sources and methods," he wrote in a letter to the White House.
The intelligence committee demanded that the White House hand over all the secret documents found so that the risk could be assessed.
US media reported that several advisers and ex-advisers to Biden had already been questioned by the FBI.
As one of those people, NBC News identified Kathy Chung, who was Biden's executive assistant when he was vice president and would have packed his office in 2017.
She and others didn't know that the boxes contained files that "shouldn't have left the White House."
"It's just completely irresponsible"
Biden reacted irritably to the latest developments.
At a previous event, a Fox News reporter asked him about the affair Thursday: 'Secret files next to your Corvette?
What were you thinking?'
Biden famously owns a classic car collection, including a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible. "My Corvette's in a locked garage," he retorted.
"She's not out on the street." He reiterated that he takes classified files seriously and fully cooperates with the Justice Department, but avoided further questions.
As recently as September, Biden was still upset about Trump's Mar-a-Lago scandal and sharply condemned the private storage of secret files.
"How can someone be so irresponsible?" he said in an interview.
"It's just completely irresponsible."
The scandal is rampant.
Biden's spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre endured an hour-long battle of words with correspondents in the White House on Thursday afternoon.
A Fox News man coined the next catchphrase: "Garagegate."
Many questions remain unanswered.
Why was the White House so late in searching for files when Trump's Mar-a-Lago scandal had been simmering since early last year?
Why were the finds covered up?
What exactly do the discovered files contain?
Who is responsible?
Are there other Biden files anywhere?
Joe Biden won't get rid of this headache anytime soon.