When the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement opened five years ago, University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) President Amy Gutmann bragged of how Joe Biden’s “unmatched personal connections” would help “advance the world order.”
Now, after classified documents were discovered at the Washington, D.C., think tank, concerns are being raised about foreign benefactors, particularly from China, and the revolving door of university employees who made their way into now-President Biden’s administration.
“This level of access and opportunity raises questions about who had access to the classified documents found at the Penn Biden Center,” wrote House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) in a recent letter to UPenn President M. Elizabeth Magill. “It is imperative to understand whether any Biden family members or associates gained access to the classified documents while stored at the Penn Biden Center.”
UPenn’s prestigious Beltway outpost opened in February 2018 with high expectations. The think tank promised to become a hub for advancing diplomacy by bringing together staff and students and leaders from all across the global stage. “The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement was founded on the principle that a democratic, open, secure, tolerant, and interconnected world benefits all Americans,” a UPenn spokesperson told The Daily Wire.
Biden became UPenn’s Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor in 2017, shortly after leaving the vice presidency. He stayed with the university until April 2019, when Biden took an unpaid leave of absence upon announcing his campaign for president.
UPenn paid Biden more than $900,000 for a position that did not involve regular classes but did result in about a dozen public appearances on campus, according to a 2019 investigative report from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Citing higher-education experts, the article surmised Biden probably wasn’t paid so much for lectures as he was “for something less tangible: the prestige of associating with a former vice president and senator who had burnished his reputation as a global figure.” That didn’t stop Biden from exclaiming last year that he worked as a “full professor” at UPenn for four years, a claim which PolitiFact determined was “Half True.”
Nowadays, the website and social media accounts for the Penn Biden Center are relatively quiet, with no new posts since the spring of 2022. But in recent weeks the think tank reemerged as the epicenter of controversy rocking Biden’s presidency.
CBS News broke the story last month that on November 2, days before the midterm elections, Biden’s attorneys found about 10 documents marked classified while clearing out Biden’s office at the center. The news outlet later reported the FBI searched the Penn Biden Center in mid-November, though it was unclear whether investigators found any additional classified materials.
With classified documents dating back to Biden’s time as vice president or U.S. senator also discovered at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur as special counsel to examine whether “any person or entity violated the law in connection with this matter.” Biden has said he was “surprised” government documents were found at his private office space and insisted there would be full cooperation with investigators.
Several aspects of the story remain unclear, including why it took so long for Biden’s team to clear out his old think tank office. And there is growing concern about how donations to UPenn from foreign countries reportedly tripled in the two years after the Biden Penn Center opened. The Washington Free Beacon reported most of the $61 million in gifts and contracts between 2017 and 2019 came from China, citing records from the Department of Education. Republicans and others have long warned of Biden’s potential for conflicts of interest, especially with the multi-million dollar dealings of the president’s son Hunter involving China and other countries.
“The danger of influence peddling is that it is not only the preferred avenue for corruption in Washington, but it often allows dangerous levels of access to targeted leaders,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in a January column. “Even if the public dodged this danger on the Chinese-funded office, it was not due to any lack of effort by the Bidens. The question now is how the public can feel confident that the FBI will show the same vigor in investigating the Bidens as it did [former President Donald] Trump.”
In his letter last month to UPenn’s president, Comer demanded a wide range of documents and communications, particularly those related to Chinese donors. “The American people deserve to know whether the Chinese Communist Party, through Chinese companies, influenced potential Biden Administration policies with large, anonymous donations to UPenn and the Penn Biden Center,” he wrote.
A UPenn spokesperson told The Daily Wire the university received Comer’s letter and planned to respond in a timely manner. “It is important to reiterate that the Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity,” the spokesperson said. “In fact, the University has never solicited any gifts for the Center. Since its inception in 2017 there have been three unsolicited gifts (from two donors) which combined total $1,100. Both donors are Americans. One hundred percent of the budget for the Penn Biden Center comes from university funds.”
A number of people who worked at UPenn and its D.C. think tank made the jump to Biden’s administration. Among them is Gutmann, who became ambassador to Germany. There is also Antony Blinken, a foreign policy fixture from the Obama administration who became managing director of the Penn Biden Center before leaving to join Biden’s presidential campaign, and later becoming his secretary of state.
Elliot Abrams, a longtime government foreign policy official across multiple administrations, told the Associated Press the think tank “started as a parking space for Biden people until he ran for president, and never really outgrew that start.”
When speaking about the center in a promotional video, Biden acknowledged one of his high-flying aims that came to pass. “I’m hoping that we are going to see some future secretaries of states, and presidents, and national security advisers roll through this outfit,” he said.