WASHINGTON (AP) — As Joe Biden pondered his next move after decades in government in 2017, he considered a familiar path — creating a Washington-based think tank to focus on international affairs and diplomacy. It turned out to be easy to sell and also lucrative.
Soft landings in the capital are common for officials with resumes like Biden’s, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement was born, with sweeping views of the Capitol.
The former vice president brought trusted personnel and boxes of files. Now a small batch of those files are at the center of the controversy, as some were classified documents that Biden had no right to keep.
The shine of the Ivy League academy and lofty ambitions has been blunted by this month’s revelation that the sensitive documents were found in a locked cabinet last fall as Biden lawyers were packing up his former downtown office. That discovery is a test for Biden, just as he considers a 2024 re-election campaign.
It turns out that politics was part of it all along.
At an early downtown rally in February 2018, Biden told his foreign policy aides — many of them from the Obama-Biden administration — that he was keeping his options open for a possible 2020 presidential campaign and that he would welcome them to his team if he decides to flee.
Sure enough, after hosting a handful of forums downtown and speaking a few times on the main campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019. And after that, he was rarely at the Capitol Hill center, which has continued to function. quietly since the eponymous leader moved on.
The relatively low profile is now a thing of the past.
Republicans in Congress are asking questions about the center’s budget and hiring practices, and the FBI may want to search the property for more documents, as it did at Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home.
The Penn Biden Center, which is affiliated with the Philadelphia school, says it is founded on the principle that “a democratic, open, safe, tolerant and interconnected world benefits all Americans.”
According to Biden’s tax returns, the university paid him about $900,000 over about two years, starting just after he left office when Donald Trump and Mike Pence took over the White House. In addition to the center, Biden also fulfilled roles at the school where he would speak on campus.
While the center’s staff continued to conduct research after Biden’s departure, serve as pundits for the media and write foreign policy columns, no new work has appeared on the center’s website in the last 10 months.
Elliott Abrams, who has held foreign policy positions for presidents in the Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump administrations, said it has not developed as an influential think tank.
“It started out as a parking lot for Biden people until he ran for president, and he never really grew out of that beginning,” Abrams said.
According to public records and the Penn Biden Center website, many current Biden allies in the White House cycled through the think tank.
State Secretary Antony Blinken was the general director of the center from May 2017 to June 2019. Michael Carpenter held the role of Managing Director before being appointed US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Other center staffers included Steve Ricchetti, now Biden’s senior adviser. There are at least seven other Biden staffers who have taken center stage and are now involved in national security issues in the administration.
Even Amy Gutmann, who was the president of the university at the time and helped found the center, now works for him. She is the US ambassador to Germany.
Biden himself has a long history with the Ivy League school; his late son Beau, daughter Ashley, and granddaughter Naomi have all graduated. Biden received an honorary doctorate from Penn in 2013 after delivering the commencement speech.
Biden regularly worked from downtown on Constitution Avenue as he quietly planned his presidential run, according to his aides, but he spent no time there after announcing his candidacy. His lawyers finally got around to clearing out the office when they came across the classified documents last November.
Biden told reporters he was surprised to learn the documents were there. The files were immediately turned over to the Justice Department, but the discovery of files there and at Biden’s home has prompted an investigation by special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Trump is also facing a special council investigation regarding classified documents. In his case, FBI agents were executing a warrant that indicated they were investigating possible crimes, including the deliberate withholding of national defense information and attempts to obstruct the federal investigation. Biden voluntarily allowed the FBI to search his home.
Former officials at all levels of government discover they are in possession of classified material and turn it over to authorities at least several times a year, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of classified documents .
Still, the existence of the documents at the Penn Biden Center has drawn unwelcome criticism of the think tank, particularly from House Republicans investigating mishandling of classified material. They requested a list of all the center’s employees, including dates of hire and salaries, visitor logs, and security-related documents and communications.
A conservative legal group led by former Trump advisers has complained to the IRS about the center’s hiring of Biden and his allies.
The chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., has suggested that some of the tens of millions of dollars in foreign donations to the university from patrons in China went to the Penn Biden Center.
Donors from Ireland, Hong Kong, Canada, India, Japan and Brazil have also contributed to the university in recent years, although the House has focused on donations from China.
A statement from the university said the school would respond to the committee’s questions in a timely manner, but it has never solicited donations for the center. There were three unsolicited gifts from two donors totaling $1,100.
The budget for the center comes exclusively from university funds. The total academic operating budget for the university is approximately $4 billion. Penn Biden Center officials have not said how much of that will go toward the center’s operations.
“It is important to reiterate that the Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity,” the Penn Biden Center statement said.
Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.