Frustrated White House sends letter to press corps, skewering coverage of Biden’s handling of classified files

Frustrated White House sends letter to press corps, skewering coverage of Biden’s handling of classified files
  • PublishedFebruary 14, 2024

The White House is making its frustration over recent press coverage known.

In a letter Tuesday to the White House Correspondents’ Association, Ian Sams, spokesperson for the White House Counsel’s Office, expressed concern over how the news media has covered Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report on President Joe Biden’s handling of classified material.

In the letter, which CNN is first to report, Sams conceded that “covering the report is challenging,” given that it is “nearly 400 pages long” and “not straightforward.” Hur’s references to Biden’s mental acuity, he acknowledged, have stolen attention from the crux of the matter, writing that Hur’s “wrong and inappropriate personal comments have distracted from due attention to the substance.”

“But those facts stress the importance of careful, patient coverage,” Sams wrote. “Instead, many outlets have reported striking inaccuracies that misrepresent the report’s conclusion about the President, and reporters in the White House Briefing Room have asked questions that include false content or are based on false premises.”

The White House, specifically, is frustrated that the press has portrayed Hur’s report as conclusively finding that Biden “willfully” mishandled classified material. The actual report in its entirety is not so clear.

In his executive summary, Hur did state the investigation “uncovered evidence that President Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified materials after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen.” But, importantly, Hur then went on to write, “We conclude that the evidence does not establish Mr. Biden’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A number of news outlets, however, downplayed the broader conclusion. Sams’ letter included several examples from prominent news organizations in which their headlines could have been more comprehensive.

Sams further argued that the evidence referenced by Hur in the executive summary introducing the report were later cast into question by Hur himself. For instance, regarding the Afghanistan documents, Hur wrote, “While it is natural to assume that Mr. Biden put the Afghanistan documents in the box on purpose and that he knew they were there, there is in fact a shortage of evidence on these points.” Regarding his personal diaries, Hur wrote, “The evidence does not show that when Mr. Biden shared the specific passages with his ghostwriter, Mr. Biden knew the passages were classified and intended to share classified information.”

Indeed, the lengthy report is littered with Hur sharing plausible explanations for Biden’s behavior that rebut the notion he intentionally broke the law.

Sams’ letter is yet another step White House officials have taken to push back against press narratives about the report. On Friday, Sams appeared in the briefing room, taking questions from journalists about Hur’s report. And CNN has learned that over the last several days, officials with the White House and the president’s personal counsel have been sparring behind the scenes with reporters about their coverage, with limited success.

It’s not just the White House making such arguments though. Some legal experts have also skewered press coverage of Hur’s report. Andrew Weissmann, a former assistant US attorney who worked on Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe into Donald Trump, and Ryan Goodman, co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and a professor of law at New York University, wrote a blistering critique of the press coverage over the weekend.

“The Special Counsel Robert Hur report has been grossly mischaracterized by the press,” Weissmann and Goodman wrote, adding that the news media “incorrectly and repeatedly blast out that the Hur report found Biden willfully retained classified documents, in other words, that Biden committed a felony.”

The aggressive defense mounted by the White House reflects the growing realization inside Biden-world about the damage that Hur’s report has caused. Not only has Biden’s age and mental acuity become a hotly discussed topic because of Hur’s remarks, but the notion Biden willfully mishandled national secrets has seeped into the public consciousness. Reversing that will be tough.

The White House, of course, knows that it will not be successful in getting news organizations to walk back previous coverage. But it hopes that it can at least persuade outlets to be more cautious and nuanced while covering the story moving forward. As Sams wrote in his letter, “I am compelled to help illustrate the facts in this matter and urge caution in the future with reporting that either is inattentive to detail or misconstrues the facts and evidence.”


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