WASHINGTON (AP) — When Hillary Clinton was running for president, her campaign wanted a gentler way to talk about the criminal investigation into her private email server, so they called it a “security review.”
Now President Joe Biden's team is using similar language when talking about the discovery of classified documents in his Delaware home and former office. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, tends to describe the situation as a “review” or a “legal process," using the term “investigation” much less frequently.
Any White House or campaign tends to choose its words carefully, but never moreso than when under a prosecutor's scrutiny. It's a rhetorical dance where political figures weigh demands for full disclosure against the political imperative to cast investigations in the least ominous light — not to mention the desire to avoid potential criminal charges.
“Between the media and political concerns of protecting a president by being transparent, and the legal concerns of not speaking when you don’t know everything, there’s got to be a balance,” said Lanny Davis, who served as a legal adviser to then-President Bill Clinton as he faced investigations from independent counsel Ken Starr.
Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel's office, acknowledged that tug of war when speaking off-camera to reporters this week — a conversation in which he didn't shy away from using the word “investigation” repeatedly.
“I understand that there’s a tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly appropriate with that,” he said.
Biden’s team has faced criticism for its fragmented disclosures about the discoveries of classified documents, occasionally leading to heated exchanges between reporters and Jean-Pierre in the White House briefing room.
She ran into trouble when she suggested last Friday that all documents had been recovered, only to have an additional discovery disclosed over the weekend.
“Are you upset that you came out to this podium on Friday with incomplete and inaccurate information?” one reporter asked Jean-Pierre on Tuesday. "And are you concerned that it affects your credibility up here?”
Jean-Pierre responded by saying that “what I’m concerned about is making sure that we do not politically interfere in the Department of Justice,” describing the situation as an “ongoing process.”
Earlier in the briefing, Jean-Pierre said she was trying to be “prudent” with what information she shares.
“I’m going to let this ongoing review that is happening, this legal process that is happening, and let that process continue under the special counsel,” she said.
There's a long history of administrations deflecting about ongoing probes. Scott McClellan, who represented President George W. Bush's White House, and Mike McCurry, who did the same for President Bill Clinton, frequently punted questions elsewhere rather than provide their own commentary.
Davis also said he doesn't blame the White House for favoring some words over others.
“You use the word ‘review’ instead of ‘investigation.’ I’ve done it hundreds of times on behalf of clients,” he said. “Why do I not use the word ‘investigate?’ Because it’s harsher. It’s an understandable choice to use a softer word.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland last week appointed a special counsel to lead the investigation, a decision that could leave a lingering cloud over the White House as Biden prepares a potential reelection campaign.
Richard Sauber, a lawyer for the president, has not used the word “investigation” in any of his written statements about the case, but he's stressed the White House's willingness to cooperate with the Justice Department. He said Thursday: “We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake.”