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Biden joins Trump under scrutiny of special counsel investigating classified documents


The U.S. Justice Department is in the middle of politics, whether it wants to be or not. This week, Attorney General Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate how classified documents were found at President Joe Biden's home and private office. That's two months after a different special counsel began to look into how top-secret materials ended up in former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What can you tell us about what moved the attorney general to launch this investigation that could conceivably see President Biden interviewed by the FBI?

JOHNSON: Merrick Garland says there are extraordinary circumstances here. Here's what we know so far. Biden's lawyers found secret documents where they didn't belong in early November and then found another batch in December, then one more document this week and this morning, news of five more pages. So it hasn't been a smooth process. The attorney general said appointing an outside prosecutor would be good for transparency and accountability. And that's been a theme we've heard all along from Merrick Garland, starting with his first day at work nearly two years ago. Here's what he told Justice employees back in March 2021.


MERRICK GARLAND: The only way we can succeed and retain the trust of the American people is to adhere to the norms that have become part of the DNA of every Justice Department employee.

JOHNSON: And about those norms, Garland described them this way.


GARLAND: Those norms require that like cases be treated alike, that there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes.

JOHNSON: In other words, the same standard for everyone.

SIMON: Carrie, how is this investigation different from the one that's looking into how classified materials ended up in Donald Trump's Florida home?

JOHNSON: Well, for one thing, the Justice Department takes the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but a former president might be. Biden's White House says he didn't know about the documents and that having them at home was a mistake. In the Trump case, the FBI got a search warrant to get the papers after months of back-and-forth with Trump's lawyers. And Trump himself has been all over the map about what he knew about the top-secret documents in Florida. It's clear he didn't want to hand some of them over to the National Archives, though. Jack Smith, the special counsel in the Trump probe, hasn't tipped his hand publicly about what he might do next there. And some of Biden's aides have already been interviewed, and they're likely to be interviewed all over again by the new special counsel, Robert Hur. It's possible the FBI will want to ask Joe Biden some questions too.

SIMON: Carrie, I'm trying to imagine what the next cabinet meeting might look like...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...With the attorney general and the president at the same table. How could this affect the president's relationship with the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Well, the White House says it's cooperating with Justice Department investigators, and DOJ did not notify Biden in advance before appointing a special counsel this week. The attorney general did not discuss any of this while he was traveling with the president in Mexico either. I'm told Garland had already made up his mind on the special counsel before that trip. The attorney general has said that running the DOJ is like coming home for him. Scott, he worked there decades ago. His sister worked there. His closest friends work there. And more than 35 of his former law clerks work there. So protecting the integrity of that institution is paramount to Merrick Garland.

SIMON: Is there an example of the White House and Justice Department coming together?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Just yesterday, the DOJ issued a new rule related to firearms. It's part of a bigger effort to crack down on gun violence all over the country. It's just one of many areas where the White House and the Justice Department continue to collaborate despite this special counsel appointment.

SIMON: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.