Classified-Documents Probe Highlights Biden Family’s Penn Ties – Latest News Update

The discovery of classified documents from Joe Biden‘s vice presidency at a foreign-relations think tank might have surprised many in the country. The fact that the think tank was run by the University of Pennsylvania and bore the president’s name shouldn’t have.

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For decades, the Ivy League school and the Biden family, across generations, have fostered close relations to their mutual benefit. Those benefits extend beyond the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, where the documents were discovered in November.

As an aspirational U.S. senator considering a 1972 run, Mr. Biden sought the views of Penn scholars on issues of the day like the Vietnam War. As vice president, he used the university as a backdrop for new initiatives, such as the Cancer Moonshot initiative in 2016. After he left the vice presidency, the Penn Biden Center was launched with the university’s backing, paying Mr. Biden about $900,000 and serving as a landing pad for some of his top aides.

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“President Biden is proud of his work on behalf of an educational institution in his community that he respects,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “Like many former vice presidents in both political parties, he established a center at a university near his home and with which he has a longstanding relationship” that goes back a half-century, he said.

Family members cultivated their own ties, too, according to interviews with people close to Mr. Biden and correspondence contained in what a Republican Senate office said was a copy of a laptop hard drive belonging to Mr. Biden’s son Hunter. A lawyer for Hunter Biden has urged state and federal prosecutors to investigate prominent allies of former President Donald Trump and others who were accused of unlawfully accessing and disseminating his personal data to enemies of now-President Biden.

According to correspondence contained on the laptop, Mr. Biden’s daughter-in-law in 2014 and 2015 helped organize a dinner in Washington’s brick-lined Georgetown neighborhood for Penn leaders, donors and parents. As the arrangements were under way, she discussed with Penn staff whether there was a role at the university for Hunter Biden. No job ever materialized.

Biden family members also at times sought direct advice from senior university staff on potential admittance for Mr. Biden’s grandchildren, the laptop correspondence shows. Two of Mr. Biden’s children and three of his seven grandchildren have been educated there. Mr. Biden earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware and his law degree from Syracuse University.

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After Mr. Biden became president, he nominated two top Penn officials as U.S. ambassadors to important U.S. allies, and both were confirmed by the Senate. Amy Gutmann, the former president of Penn, is now U.S. ambassador to Germany. David L. Cohen, chairman of the university’s board of trustees from 2009 to 2021, is ambassador to Canada.

Hunter Biden referred queries to his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, a partner at Winston & Strawn.

“Like countless parents, Mr. Biden has been an involved and supportive father in his children’s education,” said Mr. Lowell in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal. “Because he loves his children and is fiercely protective of their well-being as private citizens and young adults, he is not going to indulge in invasive, partisan attempts by the media or others seeking to probe their private lives, especially in a time where families are being threatened and attacked.”

Dr. Gutmann declined to comment and referred questions to the White House and Penn. Neither provided comments on her behalf. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Canada handling queries for Mr. Cohen declined to comment.

The ties between the Biden family and the university attracted little attention in the past. Many presidents are closely associated with universities, such as the Bushes with Yale. Presidents routinely appoint friends and donors to ambassadorships. And prominent families often gravitate to the same academic institution.

Former President Donald Trump, for example, also has associations with Penn, transferring to the university after initially starting at Fordham University in New York. Three of Mr. Trump’s four adult children were educated at Penn.

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“For one reason or another, ingratiating oneself with a major Ivy League, wealthy university seems to be the credential that a lot of these political families are looking for,” said Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration.

David Gergen, who has advised presidents from both political parties, said Mr. Biden’s elaborate ties to Penn “would have been considered standard practice” in earlier times.

“Our best universities often like to have political figures around,” said Mr. Gergen. “It was often, in years gone by, seen as a way of making life more interesting on a college campus,” he said. “Today that doesn’t pass muster,” he said.

Penn didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the propriety of cultivating such relationships with powerful families.

The Biden-Penn ties are now attracting attention after the discovery of the documents marked as classified at the Penn Biden Center in November, which was followed by a Federal Bureau of Investigation search of the premises later that month and the appointment of a Justice Department special counsel in January. Other documents were discovered at Mr. Biden’s Wilmington, Del., residence. On Wednesday, the Justice Department searched but found no classified documents at President Biden’s Rehoboth Beach, Del., residence, his lawyer said. The search came the same day that the special counsel Robert Hur began work investigating how and why classified documents were on premises used by Mr. Biden.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are delving into the university’s donations from China among other matters in what they cast as a national-security probe related to the Biden classified-document revelations. In a statement laying out concerns, Rep. James Comer (R., Ky.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, said his panel is “concerned that UPenn officials offered lucrative, foreign-funded salaries to President Biden’s closest political allies to secure senior posts in a future Biden administration and foreign actors funded those salaries to influence a future government.”

A Penn spokesman has said the university followed all rules governing foreign donations.

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Mr. Biden has said the discovery of the documents was a surprise to him. His lawyers have been cooperating with the Justice Department. The University of Pennsylvania hasn’t commented on the documents that were found at the Penn Biden Center, where Mr. Biden maintained an office between his White House posts.

Mr. Biden began courting representatives of Penn before he was elected to the Senate. He invited professors from Penn—along with the University of Delaware—to Sunday night dinners to talk through issues ranging from taxes to Vietnam before announcing his 1972 campaign, according to his book “Promises to Keep.”

As a senator from neighboring Delaware, a chunk of Mr. Biden’s fundraising base came from Philadelphia, where there was significant overlap between Democratic and Penn donors, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democratic ally of Mr. Biden. He made occasional stops at Penn during that time, including for speeches to student groups.

After he became vice president in 2009, Mr. Biden kept the university in the political spotlight. He kicked off his first major domestic assignment as vice president there: a new task force on strengthening the middle class. He also went to Penn to pitch President Barack Obama’s jobs package in 2011.

In 2013, when Mr. Biden gave a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, he joked that he decided to wear a university-themed tie because so many family members attended the university. “I was asked why I wore a Penn tie,” Vice President Biden said, referencing university tuition payments. “My answer is, ‘I earned it.’”

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The Biden family was also becoming closer to the leadership at the university.

In 2014 and 2015, the president’s daughter-in-law Kathleen Buhle was in regular contact with Paula Clark, who was working closely with Dr. Gutmann, to arrange an elaborate dinner for the Penn University president that would be hosted by Ms. Buhle along with her then-husband, Hunter Biden, according to the correspondence contained on the laptop.

Ms. Buhle suggested having a gathering at their Washington home, but the Penn representatives made clear that they wanted a larger event that would bring together the vice president’s son—even potentially the vice president—with major Penn donors, parents of students and key university figures. According to a person familiar with the matter, the event was on behalf of the Penn Parents Council, an organization housed in Penn’s development office intended to build relationships with parents of students and involve them more fully in the university.

Hunter Biden was scheduled to give an address that would be followed by a talk by Dr. Gutmann, according to a document laying out the evening’s events. Vice President Biden didn’t attend and was instead in Philadelphia giving an address on energy.

“Amy was delighted and absolutely loved it. She was really appreciative of your hosting,” Ms. Clark wrote afterward, referring to Dr. Gutmann. “She feels very close to your family.”

Ms. Clark and Ms. Buhle didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

When news broke in 2014 that the Navy Reserve had discharged Hunter Biden after he tested positive for cocaine, Ms. Clark sent a supportive email to Ms. Buhle, saying, “We all have our struggles,” according to correspondence on the laptop.

Ms. Buhle also proposed that Hunter and his brother, Beau, teach a class at the university. “Can you pass this on to Dr. Gutmann to see what she thinks? Maybe we can arrange a time for them to talk,” Ms. Buhle wrote.

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Ms. Clark replied the same day: “I will definitely share this idea with Dr. Gutmann,” adding in another email a few days later: “I think there will be a lot of enthusiasm.” Ron Ozio, a Penn spokesman, said neither brother taught at the university. Beau Biden died of brain cancer in May 2015.

Around the same time that the dinner was being organized, Hunter Biden’s middle daughter with Ms. Buhle, a high-school lacrosse player, was exploring college options. At one point, Ms. Clark passed on advice to Ms. Buhle from another university official, suggesting that the daughter attend a university lacrosse camp that summer and offered tips on how her coaches could be sure that Penn’s team saw her play. “Bottom line,” Ms. Clark wrote to Ms. Buhle in early February 2015, she “is now on the radar here,” according to correspondence contained on the laptop. She was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania, entering the class of 2021. That year roughly 9% of applicants were accepted, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

In 2018, Hunter Biden’s youngest daughter with Ms. Buhle unsuccessfully applied for admission in the early-decision stage, according to the laptop correspondence. That year 18% of those who applied early were admitted in the first round, according to admissions statistics reported by the Daily Pennsylvanian. It was the university’s lowest acceptance rate at that point, the newspaper reported.

In a text, Hunter Biden described a conversation he had with Dr. Gutmann, saying she “made clear” that his daughter would need to “show improvement” in her senior year of high school, according to correspondence contained on the laptop.

Mr. Ozio said that the university doesn’t comment on student admissions.

In March 2019, just weeks before announcing his presidential bid, Joe Biden brought up the matter with the university’s dean of admissions, according to a text he later sent Hunter Biden, saying he took the conversation “as encouragement” about his granddaughter’s prospects. She was admitted to Penn, joining the class of 2023, which, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, was the most selective to date, with roughly 7% of applicants accepted.

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Mr. Bates, the White House spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about Mr. Biden’s conversation with university officials about his granddaughter. “He could not be more proud of his smart, hardworking grandchildren,” Mr. Bates said.

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