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As Republicans start investigating Biden, the White House war room is ready to fight

The White House team of lawyers, strategists and veterans of Capitol Hill meet regularly in the Secretary of War suite inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building
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The White House team of lawyers, strategists and veterans of Capitol Hill meet regularly in the Secretary of War suite inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building

There's an ornate suite of rooms deep inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that, in an earlier era, was used by the Secretary of War.

These days, a team of about two dozen White House lawyers, strategists and Capitol Hill veterans gathers regularly in that suite to plan their strategy for dealing with a barrage of oversight demands launched by House Republicans: an investigations 'war room' that is literally working out of a war room.

Since President Biden took office, Republicans in Congress have often accused him and his administration of wrongdoing, but they had no real power to demand documents or compel testimony. That changed in January when the GOP took over the House majority and all the investigative powers that come with it.

They have launched investigations into everything from internet companies and the "weaponization of government" to the Afghanistan withdrawal and the business dealings of the president's family, including his son Hunter. There are hearings scheduled just about every week they're in session, with committee chairmen regularly demanding documents from the administration.

At the White House, the team charged with responding has been trading letters with House committees. Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel's office, said the team is willing to work in good faith on "substantive" requests they view as legitimate.

"Unfortunately, a lot of what we've seen so far have been political stunts, and hearings going after things that the American public doesn't care about," Sams said.

The White House posture is to let Biden stay above the fray, talking about his administration's accomplishments and goals.

Meanwhile, his team has been eager to undercut the investigations by sharing clips that they feel show Republicans overreaching, such as House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer predicting on Fox News that his plan to investigate "influence peddling" in the Biden family would keep Biden from seeking reelection.

Polls indicate many Americans are skeptical of these investigations. The White House strategy is to reinforce that whenever possible. The White House bet is that Republicans will take things too far and turn off voters.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan strikes the gavel to start a hearing on U.S. southern border security on Feb. 1, 2023.
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House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, strikes the gavel to start a hearing on U.S. southern border security on Feb. 1.

Outside groups are amplifying the White House message

In an ad from a group called the Congressional Integrity Project, ominous music plays as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan tells an audience that the investigations will "help frame up the 2024 race" when he hopes former President Donald Trump will run and win again.

The nonprofit political group, which is not required to disclose its donors, is running the ad in swing districts held by Republicans.

When there are hearings, the group floods inboxes with talking points slamming Republican committee members.

"We wake up every morning and call attention to their lies and to their motivations," said Kyle Herrig, the group's executive director. "Beyond that, we are doing opposition research to call attention to their hypocrisy. Folks like James Comer, Jim Jordan, the people running these investigations."

If this sounds like brass knuckles politics, it is. David Brock, a veteran of these sorts of partisan battles, leads another outside group that has sprung up to defend Biden called Facts First USA. It, too, doesn't name its donors.

"A group like ours can say and do things that the White House won't, can't, shouldn't say or do," said Brock. In particular, while the White House may not want to talk about Hunter Biden, Brock and his group won't shy away from the president's son or his infamous laptop.

Officially, the White House isn't endorsing these groups or their work but they also aren't disavowing them.

With a poster of a <em>New York Post</em> front page about Hunter Biden on display, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer and Rep. Jim Jordan R-OH listen during a Feb. 8, 2023 hearing.
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With a poster of a New York Post front page about Hunter Biden on display, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, listen during a Feb. 8 hearing.

The investigations carry real risks for Biden ahead of 2024

Even though the White House is currently batting off House investigations, there are real political risks at play, particularly as a likely reelection campaign draws closer.

That's why a robust response is necessary, said Eric Schultz, who was part of the team that the Obama White House put together to respond to investigations that became household names like Benghazi, Fast and Furious and Solyndra.

"If there are hints of corruption or scandal or impropriety, that will undermine the president's ability to stay in the good graces of the electorate," said Schultz, who said he is a bit jealous Biden has air cover from outside groups that Obama didn't have.

"The right-wing ecosystem has enough horsepower that even nonsense can get traction," said Schultz, explaining the value of a robust response.

And as much as the White House would like to blow off the investigations, they actually do need to cooperate, said James Barnette, a partner with law firm Steptoe and Johnson. He was the top Republican lawyer with the House Energy and Commerce committee, which a decade ago led the investigation into Obama administration loans to failed solar panel maker Solyndra.

He said the White House has seasoned lawyers on this team who know how to handle investigations. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if the scathing letter coming from Capitol Hill is a serious demand for documents or more of a press release meant to generate attention. That's where negotiations between the legal teams on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue come in.

"Republicans can hold hearings on anything they want, with any witnesses they want," said Barnette. "And if you're not at the table, you're going to be eaten for dinner."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The U.S. Capitol Building dome is seen from the Cannon House Office Building on Jan. 19, 2023.
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The U.S. Capitol Building dome is seen from the Cannon House Office Building on Jan. 19.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.