In 2017, as Joe Biden pondered his next steps after decades in politics and government, he chose a path not uncommon for people with successful careers in top public office. He founded a Washington think tank focused on international affairs and diplomacy, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Location: Constitution Avenue with a great view of the Capitol.
The ex-vice president at the time took loyal employees and boxes full of documents with him. Now, a small portion of those papers are at the center of controversy because they are classified documents that Biden should not have taken. They were discovered in a locked closet in early November as Biden's attorneys were packing up the things in his former office at the Penn Biden Center. The find was only unveiled in January, and it poses an uncomfortable challenge for Biden, who is considering running for president again in 2024.
Apparently, political considerations were at play from the start when the University of Pennsylvania-affiliated think tank was launched. At an early meeting at the center in February 2018, Biden told trusted foreign policy advisers, many of them from the Obama-Biden administration, that he was keeping his options open for a possible 2020 presidential bid -- and that he'd welcome them join his team should he enter the race.
Indeed, after hosting a few discussion boards at the center and delivering a few speeches on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019. After that, he rarely stayed at the think tank, which quietly continued to operate while Biden strove for new shores.
But their days of relative inconspicuousness are now over. Republicans in Congress want to know more about the think tank's budget and hiring practices. And the FBI may decide to search for more documents on the center's premises, as it has already done at Biden's home in Delaware.
The center says it was founded on the principle that "a democratic, open, secure, tolerant, and interconnected world benefits all Americans." According to Biden's tax returns, the university paid him about $900,000 over about two years. In addition to the think tank, he also had other roles at the university, giving speeches there.
After Biden's departure, the center's staff continued research, served as media experts, and wrote foreign policy opinion pieces. But the facility's website hasn't listed a new project for months. Elliott Abrams, who has held foreign policy positions in the administrations of several Republican presidents, says the center has not evolved into an influential think tank. "It started out as a parking lot for Biden people until he ran for president and never grew past that start," Abrams says.
Indeed, many of Biden's current White House allies rotated through the think tank, according to public filings and the center's website. Secretary of State Antony Blinken served as Chief Executive of the Center from May 2017 to the end of June 2019, and Michael Carpenter held that position before becoming Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Another former staffer at the center is now a senior Biden adviser, and at least seven other former staffers currently serve on national security at the White House.
Even the university's former president, Amy Gutmann, who helped birth the center, now works for Biden — as the US ambassador to Germany. And Biden himself has close ties to the elite university: his late son Beau, daughter Ashley and granddaughter Naomi all graduated there.
Biden frequently worked out of his downtown office as he quietly prepared his presidential bid, his staff say. But after the announcement of his application, he practically stopped spending time there. His lawyers finally got around to clearing out his office last November and stumbled upon the documents.
Biden says he was surprised when he heard about the find. The papers were immediately forwarded to the Justice Department, but the discovery of the documents and others found in Biden's home has led to the launch of an investigation being led by a special counsel. Ex-President Donald Trump is also facing investigations into the discovery of secret documents in his private residence, but he is also accused of not having cooperated with the authorities, which Biden did.
Still, the existence of classified documents at the Penn Biden Center has drawn criticism of the think tank itself, particularly from Republicans in the House of Representatives who are investigating the handling of the papers. Among other things, they have requested a list of the center's employees, along with dates of their employment and earnings, as well as visitor logs.
Republican Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, James Comer, has claimed that some of the tens of millions of dollars in foreign funding for the university went to the Penn Biden Center from patrons in China.
The budget for the center comes solely from university funds. The university's total academic operating budget is approximately $4 billion. Center officials didn't say how much of it goes into running their facility. But a statement from the center stressed that it had never solicited or received any gifts from the Chinese side.