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For Republicans, a new special counsel is both good news and bad

Are Republican leaders delighted to see a special counsel investigate the handling of President Biden’s Obama-era classified documents? Not exactly.


The Justice Department’s press office issued a release this morning, announcing that Attorney General Merrick Garland would hold a press conference this afternoon. At that point, pretty much every political observer in the country came to the same conclusion: Garland would appoint a special counsel to review the circumstances surrounding President Joe Biden’s Obama-era classified documents.

To no one’s surprise, those assumptions proved true. NBC News reported:

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Thursday he was appointing Robert Hur to serve as a special counsel to review classified material found in President Joe Biden’s Delaware residence and a Washington office he used. Hur, now a lawyer at a Washington, D.C. firm, was the U.S. Attorney for Maryland during the Trump administration, and is also the former principal counselor to former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the Mueller investigation.

Garland said Hur’s appointment “authorizes him to investigate whether any person or entity violated the law in connection with this matter.” The attorney general added that the move was necessary because of the “extraordinary circumstances” involved.

He didn’t elaborate on the details of the “extraordinary circumstances,” though the broader context isn’t exactly a mystery: Donald Trump is facing a criminal investigation for having taken classified materials, refusing to give them back, and then allegedly obstructing the retrieval process. Now that the incumbent Democratic president appears to have inadvertently taken some documents several years ago — as part of a spectacularly different case — Garland, eager to appear impartial and evenhanded, is turning to another special counsel.

For Democrats, it’s unlikely that today’s announcement will cause much agita. There simply isn’t any reason to believe Biden broke the law. Given everything we currently know, it’s very easy to believe the then-vice president inadvertently took materials he shouldn’t have, and when they were discovered, they were quickly returned.

The idea that Biden knowingly, and with deliberate intent, took and hid a small number of sensitive documents is far-fetched — and wholly at odds with all of the available information.

Indeed, there’s nothing adversarial about any of this. While Trump spends months lashing out wildly at federal law enforcement, the White House counsel’s office said in a written statement this afternoon, “We have cooperated closely with the Justice Department throughout its review, and we will continue that cooperation with the Special Counsel.”

But while many Democrats will probably shrug with general indifference to these developments, let’s not brush past the Republicans’ perspective.

At face value, this might seem like a positive development for Biden’s GOP detractors. After all, they can now run around saying, accurately, that the incumbent Democratic president is facing scrutiny from a special counsel. If nothing else, the news should serve as the basis for some fundraising appeals, tweets, and conservative media segments.

But there’s another dimension to this.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters this morning, “We don’t think there needs to be a special prosecutor.” The California Republican added, in reference to the Biden disclosures, “I think Congress has to investigate this.”

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: A special counsel investigation, even one led by a former Trump-appointed prosecutor, will very likely uncover the truth. But for GOP leaders and lawmakers, Hur and his team will also act quietly and methodically, failing to share information with Congress, before reaching the likely conclusion that the Democratic president didn’t do anything illegal.

None of that will pay any political dividends for Republicans.

It’s why McCarthy said he and his party didn’t necessarily think today’s step was necessary: If given a choice, the new House speaker would much prefer far-right House committee chairs — I’m looking in your direction Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan — take the lead on this, not an experienced Justice Department professional.

I’m not saying McCarthy and GOP leaders are disappointed by today’s developments, but it’s probably fair to say they’re not delighted, either.