The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The longtime Biden aide at the center of classified documents furor

Kathy Chung went to work for Biden in 2012, becoming part of his inner circle and a bridge between him and his family

The building that housed the Penn Biden Center, President Biden's former institute, at Constitution and Louisiana Avenues N.W. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
11 min

Joe Biden had only a few days remaining in the vice president’s office, and his aides scurried to pack materials accumulated over eight years. There were books and speeches, letters and photographs. There were gifts he’d received over his two terms, along with briefing books assembled for his many foreign trips.

Much of the work was overseen by Kathy Chung, an executive assistant who had become a gatekeeper for the vice president and an integral part of his personal and political family. In those final days, she went through his small office in the White House, emptying drawers, credenzas and cabinets, all in preparation for transferring his personal and policy papers to a government-funded transition office.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), House Oversight chair, explains how he’ll handle classified document probes. (Video: Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)

Chung, who had a top-secret security clearance at the time, oversaw a small team and helped pile the folders into boxes — not sifting through them, but making sure they were quickly stowed in about a dozen containers to be carted away, according to a person familiar with her account of the activity who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private details. The labels on the boxes and folders did not suggest that top-secret materials might lurk within, instead carrying such titles as “JRB Personal,” “Cancer Moonshot” and “Papal Visit.”

Those boxes would be moved twice more before eventually ending up in the Penn Biden Center in Washington, where Biden opened a private office in 2018. And they are now a focus of a special counsel investigation, after classified documents were discovered inside the boxes.

FBI searched Penn Biden Center in November

Chung, who has become one of the most important figures for investigators trying to understand the journey of the classified documents, was interviewed by federal agents last month. She has privately expressed concern that she might be partly responsible for inadvertently packing the classified items, although she says she had no idea at the time, according to people familiar with her account.

Now, interviews with people who know her shed new light on her account and begin to clarify some previously unanswered questions about the classified document discoveries. A spokesman for the special counsel handling the Biden investigation declined to comment.

Joining Biden’s circle

Chung, who declined to comment for this article, had been active behind the scenes in politics long before joining Biden’s staff. She was responsible for scheduling national surrogates for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and she later worked as a scheduler for Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol M. Browner.

Just a few years later — in the 1990s, while working at the U.S. Department of Commerce — she overlapped with a young and well-connected recent Yale Law School graduate named Hunter Biden. The son of a longtime U.S. senator, Hunter Biden was the department’s executive director of E-Commerce Policy Coordination.

Chung would go on to work as scheduler for other Democratic senators, including Ted Kaufman and Christopher A. Coons, both from Delaware, and Mark Udall of Colorado. Then, in May 2012, her former colleague called to offer her what seemed a great opportunity: to work in the vice president’s office.

“Thanks for calling and thinking of me,” she emailed Hunter Biden afterward. “After the initial shock of taking in what you said … how could I pass up an opportunity to work for the Vice President of the United State!!!!”

She asked about the salary and what the main responsibilities were. Within a few weeks, she was convinced. “I just met with your Dad again and he officially offered me the job,” she wrote Hunter Biden on June 13, 2012. “It’s pretty exciting.”

She recounted telling the vice president what an honor it was to work for him, and that her mother would have “infinite bragging rights.” With that, she recalled, Joe Biden picked up the phone and called her mother.

“Suffice to say that you and your father have lifetime supply of my mothers homemade kimchi,” she wrote in the email to Hunter Biden. “She makes the best kimchi in northern va. I cannot thank you enough for thinking about me and walking me thru this. What an incredible opportunity! Thanks, Hunter!!”

The move would launch Chung into the upper reaches of American politics and make her among Biden’s most trusted aides. She dealt with some of the most sensitive aspects of his life, often working at the nexus of his relationship with his children and other members of his family.

She was there when the Biden family was grappling with the tragic death of Beau Biden from brain cancer in 2015. She was close when Biden considered running for president in 2016 and opted against it. She helped convene family members for important discussions about what he should do after he left elected office for the first time in 44 years.

This account is based partly on emails from a copy of a hard drive that Hunter Biden purportedly dropped off at a repair shop and never retrieved. Numerous emails from Chung appear on the hard drive, but The Washington Post is only reporting on those that have been verified as authentic under a forensic analysis by two security experts consulted by The Post.

The emails reveal an assistant who quickly became a vital member of Biden’s orbit. When Beau Biden wanted his father to keep free a week in March, he emailed Chung to arrange it. When Biden’s grandchildren were celebrating a first Communion, Chung marked it down — and made sure the vice president attended. When a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast was coming up, she checked with Biden’s son Hunter and sister, Val, to make sure no one was left off the invitation list.

Because Chung acted as a go-between with Biden’s family members, she was facing scrutiny by Republicans even before the classified documents emerged. GOP lawmakers have tried to draw connections between Joe Biden’s public roles and Hunter Biden’s private work, including for China-based companies.

On Sept. 16, 2015, Chung emailed a small group — one that included Biden’s sister Valerie and his children, Hunter and Ashley — to invite them to a lunch with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Please find attached an invitation to the State Department Luncheon Honoring Chinese President Xi, hosted by VP Biden, on Friday, September 25,” she wrote. “Please let us know if you would like to attend. Thank you. Kathy.”

She also emailed the family about a meeting that Biden would have at his Wilmington home with the president of the University of Pennsylvania. That discussion ultimately led to the creation of the Penn Biden Center, a think tank and academic hub created after Biden left the vice presidency.

Chung let family members know that the governor of Delaware was signing a bill to name The Biden Welcome Center, asking if anyone wanted to come to the event. She also sent an invitation to the dedication of a National Guard/Reserve Center that would be named after Beau Biden.

Chung loved the excitement around politics at the highest levels, she told AsianWeek when she still worked for EPA chief Browner. “There’s a constant drive and energy,” she said. “There’s always a sense of drama, pressure and stress.”

Chung added that her behind-the-scenes role could have a greater impact than it sometimes appeared. “Sometimes I feel like we dictate the quality of her day-to-day life, and that’s scary,” she said of Browner.

She added that the frequent moves distressed her mother, but she was able to impress her with some of the perks: “She was excited that I ate lunch at the White House, though,” Chung said, laughing.

In the days after Biden left office, Chung was busy setting up his post-political life. She wrote on Jan. 24, 2017, to arrange a meeting with an agent with Creative Artists Agency, which represents an array of famous clients seeking speaking engagements and other deals. She wrote that same day about a meeting to be held at Biden’s new rental home in McLean, Va., to discuss a potential role at the University of Delaware.

During this period, the boxes from the White House were being stored in the transition office. They were later moved to a temporary location that the Penn Biden Center was leasing in Chinatown. Finally, they were transferred a few blocks away to the Penn Biden Center office, which opened in February 2018 near the U.S. Capitol.

Classified document discovery

Biden’s lawyers discovered the classified documents in early November, and the White House alerted the National Archives. But it would take two months before Chung was interviewed by federal agents, in a session that was conducted on Jan. 4, according to the person familiar with her account.

During those interviews, when she was asked why some of the documents were found in boxes she had helped pack, she told investigators she was surprised that any classified records were present anywhere in the vice-presidential office. It was standard practice that if national security or intelligence aides brought classified materials to brief Biden, they would immediately return them to a safe, controlled storage site, she said.

When agents asked why she thought classified documents were found with papers or in boxes labeled as concerning wholly unrelated personal or policy matters, she said she remained even more perplexed that classified items made their way there.

Several people who have worked with Chung, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, described her work style as not always being overly meticulous.

Those close to Chung dispute that. But in any case, she told agents that her job was not to review or curate the material, only to oversee the work of quickly packing it up. It was a task made more challenging because there was little time left for the packing between Biden’s final official work and the inauguration of the new administration, she has told others.

She said she had no reason to believe any confidential presidential records remained within the office, as others had the job before her of preparing Biden’s files to transfer to the National Archives, according to a person familiar with her account.

While Chung was involved in the records that ended up at the Penn Biden Center, she had no connection with the documents that have been discovered separately at Biden’s house in Wilmington, according to the person familiar with her account.

Chung was not involved in packing Biden’s belongings at the Naval Observatory, nor did she ship any records to his home, according to the person.

The vice-presidential residence, like his White House office, was bursting with boxes, packing tape, and crates in the final days before Biden left office. White House officials and Biden’s personal attorney have declined to detail who was overseeing that operation and whether those items — or any documents — were shipped to Biden’s home in Wilmington, Del.

When Biden announced he was running for president, Chung joined his team, serving on the payroll from the start and making about $8,500 a month, according to Federal Election Commission records. Chung worked directly for Steve Ricchetti, who was the chairman of the campaign.

Some campaign staffers questioned why Chung had such a high salary, a topic that was raised during moments when Biden’s campaign was struggling financially, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal issues.

But it was clear that Biden trusted her, and that over the years working with him she had earned his trust.

One former senior campaign official said that she began the campaign working as a personal assistant to the candidate, the role she had long played for him, and that later she helped run operations for events, engagements, and logistics in Washington. She worked in Washington with a small group of other aides after the campaign headquarters was established in Philadelphia, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal dynamics.

When Biden became president, it was not long before Chung had a role. In July 2021, she was sworn in as the deputy director of protocol for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. An official at the Pentagon confirmed that she is still employed, but would not comment on her role handling classified documents or whether she currently has a security clearance.

Alice Crites and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.