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Friday, June 7, 2024

Biden’s home: Another bit player in a classified documents debacle

Two presidents, two homes, two sets of classified documents. And, oh yes, their offices.
President Joe Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone from his private residence in Wilmington. (Adam Schultz/The White House via AP)

It’s President Joe Biden’s refuge from Washington — a place that’s part home office, part Sunday family dinner venue, a safe place for his treasured 1967 Corvette and a makeshift campaign studio during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, is coming under fresh scrutiny as a repository of classified material.

The White House confirmed Thursday that classified records were found in the garage of Biden’s Wilmington home, as well as an adjacent room that the president later identified as his personal library. The disclosure came three days after the White House said similarly classified materials were located at Biden’s former institute in Washington. The discoveries, taken together, prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to tap a special counsel to oversee the matter.

The announcement shines a brighter spotlight on Biden’s Wilmington house, where he regularly spends the weekends and where he finds more freedom and a homier atmosphere than at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“I said when I was running, I wanted to be president — not to live in the White House, but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country,” Biden said in February 2021, just after he took office. Living in the White House, he said, is “a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things.”

So far in his presidency, Biden has spent part or all of 194 days in his home state of Delaware, spending most weekends in either at his Wilmington home or in Rehoboth Beach, where he owns a $2.7 million home, according to an Associated Press tally. He will head to Wilmington again this weekend.

Despite an onslaught of criticism, particularly from Republicans, for regularly escaping to the state, White House officials say the time spent in Wilmington is important for a president who traveled home nightly during the 36 years he served as senator. Biden also can stand up presidential operations at home, where he regularly meets with advisers, and an aide from the National Security Council travels with the president during Wilmington weekends.

“Every president can work from anywhere they are, because that is how presidencies are equipped,” former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in February 2022, as Russia began invading Ukraine and Biden was preparing for another weekend in Wilmington. She confirmed that Biden can make secure calls from “anywhere he is, yes.”

Biden’s custom-built Wilmington home, finished in 1998, is located in the tony Greenville section of the town and abuts a lake in a neighborhood where residents are now used to Secret Service vehicles and flashing motorcade lights. It’s a brief drive to his home church, St. Joseph on the Brandywine, and a branch of the upscale grocery store Wegman’s opened nearby in recent months.

The home is also a culmination of Biden’s decades-long quest to establish the perfect family home and his self-admitted obsession with real estate. Over the years, he would purchase several homes in Delaware and later sell them at a profit.

“Joe has a very symmetrical eye, and if he had a million dollars he wouldn’t be traveling, he would be putting it into his house,” his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, said in journalist Jules Witcover’s biography of the president. The book, “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption,” described him as an “admittedly frustrated architect.”

So meaningful is the home to the Bidens that when the former vice president floated the prospect of a second mortgage to pay for his ailing son Beau’s expenses, then-President Barack Obama flatly refused “with a force that surprised me,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.”

“I’ll give you the money,” Obama said, in Biden’s retelling. “I have it. You can pay me back whenever.”

Jill Biden has also written fondly about the home, describing its sunroom — covered in family mementos, campaign paraphernalia and artwork — as “one of my favorite places in the world.”

“The small room overlooks the lake behind our house, and I like to sit with my feet tucked up on the sofa, wrapped in a pashmina, grading papers there from my classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where I’ve taught English and writing for the last eleven years,” she wrote in her memoir, “Where the Light Enters.” “It’s a room made for homeyness and comfort.”

This haven for the Bidens quickly morphed into his de facto campaign headquarters in March 2020, when Americans were suddenly homebound with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential candidates ditched in-person stumping for virtual roundtables and Zoom fundraisers. Biden would keep up the at-home campaigning much longer than his opponent, Donald Trump, stirring some heartburn among Democrats and prompting mockery from Republicans that Biden was tethered to his basement.

But it also allowed for an unusual glimpse into the personal home of the Bidens, as he fielded questions sitting in front of shelves stuffed with books and posted Instagram photos of him and Jill dyeing Easter eggs in their kitchen.

In May 2020, Biden was speaking to the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Fund from home when he was repeatedly drowned out by squawking geese.

“There’s a pond on the other side of my property,” Biden remarked. “A lot of Canadian geese. If you hear them honking away, they’re cheering.”

The White House was pressed this week to disclose a visitors’ log to Biden’s personal home, but it’s unclear whether one even exists. Aside from family members and close advisers, there is little public knowledge about who comes in and out of Biden’s home, particularly when he is handling presidential business.

One exception was Sen. Joe Manchin.

In October 2021, Biden personally invited the influential West Virginia Democrat, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, to his home for breakfast and a tour of the property — a move seen as a deeply personal gesture from a president struggling to court Manchin on the Democrats’ massive social spending package that fall. Manchin would go on to extinguish those efforts two months later, and a furious White House responded that Manchin made a commitment to Biden “at his home in Wilmington,” portraying the senator’s announcement as a personal betrayal.

Now Biden’s home is again becoming a bit player in a political headache for the White House.

Garland said Thursday that the Justice Department was told Dec. 20 by Biden’s personal lawyer that classified material was found in the president’s Wilmington garage. Further, DOJ was notified Thursday that another record with classified markings was found elsewhere in the Wilmington home.

Asked about the disclosures Thursday, Biden kept his comments relatively brief, saying he will speak more on this “soon” and that he takes classified material seriously.

But Biden also wanted to make one thing about his house explicitly clear.

“By the way, my Corvette’s in a locked garage, OK?” he said. “So it’s not like it’s sitting out in the street.”

Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press