Document discovery spotlights Biden’s frequent use of Wilmington home

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Secret Service personnel park vehicles in the driveway leading to U.S. President Joe Biden’s house after classified documents were reported found there by the White House in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., January 14, 2023.

WILMINGTON, Del. – President Biden had wrapped up a routine weekend visit to his home here in December, one that included pre-Christmas errands at a local strip mall, a stop at his nearby golf club and an evening Mass at a church that sits five minutes from his house. But the day after he left and returned to Washington, his lawyers alerted the Justice Department to some troubling news: Inside the garage, they had located a batch of classified documents that dated to Biden’s time as vice president.

That finding has set off a political furor and prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel. But beyond that, it has drawn attention to what has become a de facto extension of the White House, a place where Biden goes most weekends in an attempt to maintain the routine he has kept throughout his political career.

It has been a dream home that he and his wife constructed. It has been a cozy retreat where he spent months of covid quarantine and ran a winning campaign. It has been the scene of family celebrations and family strife.

And now, it is the scene of a special counsel investigation.

Biden often travels with a National Security Council aide, and accommodations have been made on the property so that he can handle classified materials and conduct secure phone calls. Ironically, those security accommodations – where he as president is allowed to deal with classified matters – are on the same property as the garage that held classified materials he was not authorized to have.

That two-car garage is where he keeps his prized open-top 1967 Stingray Corvette, a gift from his father for his first wedding with the engine rebuilt by his sons for Christmas. In a video released by his campaign in August 2020, Biden is seen backing the car into the garage, where a messy pile of materials appears to include a cardboard box and a lampshade.

Asked this week why sensitive materials were found in the same area as he keeps his car, Biden retorted, “By the way, my Corvette’s in a locked garage, okay, so it’s not like it’s sitting out in the street. As I said earlier this week, people know that I take classified documents and classified materials seriously.”

The idea of going home on the weekends, and even evenings, is hard-wired into Biden’s political identity. He started the practice when he first came to Washington – becoming a senator in 1973 shortly after his wife and daughter died in a car crash – when he took the train home each night to Delaware to be with his sons as they recovered.

Biden has largely kept that approach as president, using the White House as perhaps the country’s highest-profile version of corporate housing. He travels home most weekends, easing into a predictable routine of golf, family dinners and church.

When he was home in December, he stepped into a local Jos. A Bank for the second time in several months. He made a brief stop at Fieldstone Golf Club and attended Mass on Saturday night before returning to his house. As his family that weekend marked the 50th anniversary of a tragic car crash that killed his wife and daughter, he was joined by nearly everyone in his immediate family, including his son Hunter, daughter Ashley and a half-dozen grandchildren.

Biden left Wilmington that Monday, and the next day, Dec. 20, is when Biden’s lawyers informed the Justice Department that the additional documents had been found in the garage, according to Garland. That triggered the FBI to go to the home and secure the documents.

Biden was also at the house last weekend. On Wednesday, his lawyers said they had discovered another classified document in a room adjacent to the garage.

“Of course the president has facilitated access to his residence to his personal lawyers so they can conduct the searches to ensure any records are properly in possession of the government,” White House spokesman Ian Sams said.

The White House on Friday did not respond to questions about whether the documents found at Biden’s home were left there when he was vice president, or were simply stored in his home after he left office. Biden himself was not involved in the discovery of the documents, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

During his time as vice president, Biden also had a secure facility at his house that enabled him to handle classified information. That facility was decommissioned when he left office.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter Friday to the White House expressing concern that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, may have had access to the garage at a time when he was engaged in foreign business dealings, and he asked for information related to the documents. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is also launching an investigation and sent a letter to Garland on Friday saying it was looking into the Justice Department’s actions as it investigates the handling of classified documents.

Most presidents in some way return to their former homes during their time in office. George W. Bush often spent time in Crawford, Tex., Ronald Reagan visited his ranch in California, and Donald Trump traveled to his properties in New Jersey and Florida. John F. Kennedy rarely spent weekends at the White House, often traveling to Palm Beach, Fla., Hyannis Port, Mass., or the Virginia countryside.

But for Biden, home is closer to Washington, and he is unusual among presidents in going there so often – in some cases, just for a single night.

“In the modern era, presidents have spent a considerable amount of time away from the White House,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian and the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “What I think is remarkable about how he spends his time is how he concentrates his time in one non-White House getaway.”

“There’s no real downtime for a president. The presidency moves with the president,” Naftali added. “It doesn’t matter where they are. With the advent of secure videoconferencing, presidents can meet with their national security team practically anywhere.”

Biden has said he never desired to live in the White House and has spoken wistfully about his time at the Naval Observatory, the comparatively secluded vice president’s residence. He does not like the cloistered feeling of the White House, the idea that security protection might prevent him from fixing his own breakfast or walking around in his bathrobe.

“Living in the White House, as you’ve heard other presidents who have been extremely flattered to live there, has – it’s a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things,” Biden said in a CNN town hall a month into his presidency.

Two years into his term, Biden has spent all or part of 194 days either in Wilmington or at his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, according to a tally by the Associated Press.

Biden’s presidency has transformed Wilmington’s leafy Greenville neighborhood, bringing security officers, barricades and armored vehicles traveling along formerly quiet roads. Still, it is not hard to feel distance from the bustle of Washington driving down the lush roads that lead to a home filled with light and family photos.

Biden has long had an obsession with real estate. Earlier in his life, he had considered being an architect, and when he first married, he was eager to find a place to raise a family.

“I’d thought about houses quite a bit already,” he wrote in his 2008 memoir, “Promises to Keep.” “My idea of Saturday fun was to jump in the Corvette with Neilia and drive around the Wilmington area scouting open houses, houses for sale, land where we could build.”

“Even as a kid in high school I’d been seduced by real estate,” he added, longing for a neighborhood with tall elms and oaks, manicured lawns and interesting homes.

He spent his early money moving into bigger and more stately houses, upgrading furniture and spending weekends on improvement. Soon his personal homes became his political war rooms. For years, his advisers gathered at a Biden home they called “The Station.”

In 1996, the Bidens sold the Station and purchased lakefront property on 4.2 acres for $350,000. That is where they built their current colonial-style home with a gable roof and hardwood floors, three bedrooms and four full baths, according to local property records.

The Bidens later added a two-story cottage to the property where Biden’s mother lived. After she died in 2010, Biden rented the space to the Secret Service, earning some $172,000 over about six years, according to purchasing orders from the Secret Service.

The property is meaningful to Biden, and when he openly talked about taking out a second mortgage to help the family of his son Beau with finances, then-President Barack Obama adamantly objected.

“I’ll give you the money,” Obama said, according to Biden’s 2017 book, “Promise Me, Dad.” “I have it. You can pay me back whenever.”

The house has been the scene of important meetings, such as one where his grandchildren urged him to run for president. It has been the scene of trauma and angry confrontation, for example when Hunter stormed out angrily after his family staged an intervention to try to stem his drug addiction, as Hunter himself has recounted.

When Biden’s life, like most of America’s, was altered during the spring of 2020, he retreated to his home in Wilmington. He and his wife would walk at the track next door. His grandchildren would come over and Biden would toss them ice cream bars from the porch. Geese could at times be heard honking in the background during events on Zoom.

After a long week – one consumed with the new revelations around classified documents – Biden on Friday boarded Marine One, joined by one of his longest-serving aides and closest advisers, Steve Ricchetti, who was also his chief of staff at the end of the vice presidency. About 50 minutes later, they arrived in Wilmington, where Biden is spending most of the weekend.