In early 1997, when I served as President Clinton’s special White House counsel, I was on my way to the daily morning meeting of the White House counsel’s office on the second floor of the West Wing.
No non-attorneys were allowed to be there. My position as special counsel — a lawyer with media and political experience to speak for the White House when legal controversies occurred — was mainly the idea of the first lady, my friend from law school days.
On this occasion, as usual before the daily morning meetings of White House attorneys, I stopped off to get some advice from the then-White House press secretary, Michael McCurry.
McCurry was and remains, in my view, the best press secretary in White House history — maybe in the history of the universe.
On this morning, I reminded him that several reporters were working on a story about some questionable 1996 Clinton reelection campaign fund-raising practices. “This story is coming out anyway,” McCurry said. “Davis — don’t leave that room of attorneys without your blood being on the floor.”
“Thanks a lot, McCurry,” I said. “That’s my blood you are talking about.”
But I knew what he meant: I needed to make the argument to my fellow White House attorneys that we needed to get this bad-news story out into the media before congressional Republicans did, because they would benefit by leaking it, drip by drip.
Today, President Biden and his White House legal team deserve praise for immediately disclosing to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Archives the belated discoveries of classified documents from Mr. Biden’s term as vice president. With the wisdom of hindsight, however, Mr. Biden should have been advised to take advantage of the Jan. 10 Mexico City press conference to reveal the new find of classified documents in his Wilmington garage.
Hindsight, however, is always 20-20. I used to hate kibitzers outside the White House who didn’t know all the reasons why we couldn’t put out all the facts at a particular time. So I hate to be one here.
There are three facts, however, on which most of us outside of MAGA election-deniers should agree.
First, Joe Biden is a decent and honest man. I have known him for almost 50 years — since his first year as election as a U.S. senator. We should know that Mr. Biden was not aware of these classified documents in any of the locations.
Second, Mr. Biden and his White House legal team immediately notified the National Archives and DOJ when the documents were discovered. If more are discovered, they have committed immediately to turn over all such documents to the DOJ and the new special counsel.
And third, in stark contrast, former President Trump himself admitted he knew he had classified documents at Mar-a-Lago but intentionally chose not to disclose them. We know this is true because Trump himself said it. He stated that he had unilaterally “declassified” them — thus admitting he knew he had classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. (His lawyers, however, declined to defend that he had declassified them himself in a court of law — because they couldn’t.)
Last Friday and Saturday, Michael Smerconish, on CNN and his popular SiriusXM POTUS show, addressed the Biden documents story and referred to my crisis- management mantra, “Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself,” which was the subtitle of my 1999 White House memoir, “Truth to Tell.”
Of course, that mantra has some exceptions — especially when you don’t have all the facts. But in such an event, there is always the option to go into the press room, reveal what you do know, and caution that you don’t know everything and there still may be more. President Biden has two outstanding legal and media advisers — Robert Bauer and Anita Dunn, respectively. They are working together within the White House counsel/press teams. Their challenge remains (and I don’t envy them) to walk the line between putting out information that is incomplete vs. allowing drip-by-drip leaks to continue.
Opting in favor of making proactive disclosures while cautioning there may be more to come still seems to me to be the right strategy. But second-guessing from the outside is easy and, if I were on the inside, also irritating.
As for the Republicans’ reaction, the word “hypocrisy” is way too inadequate.
Look at what Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the new chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, told Jake Tapper on CNN on Sunday. He saw no inconsistency with previously expressing no interest in investigating President Trump vs. his call now to investigate President Biden.
I have six words for him, quoting from the famous Boston attorney Joseph Welch to the demagogic then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency?”
After Comer tried to distinguish his disinterest in investigating Trump vs. Biden, I would add my own version: Have you no sense of shame?
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Lanny Davis served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton in 1996-98 and on a post-9/11 privacy and civil liberties panel appointed by President George W. Bush. He is a co-founder of the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper PLLC,, specializing in legal crisis management, and Trident DMG, a strategic communications and PR firm. He is an author of four books on US politics and policy.
Once posted: https://thehill.com/opinion/3815363-davis-the-challenge-of-the-white-house-getting-out-in-front-with-combined-legal-media-strategy-when-you-dont-know-all-the-facts/