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Biden's and Trump's document scandals are more alike than Biden claims

It took the Biden administration 68 days to acknowledge that improperly stored classified documents had been found at a former office Biden had used.

On Joe Biden’s first day as president, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki assured reporters that he was committed to bringing “transparency and truth back to government.” Implicit in Psaki’s assertion was that former President Donald Trump wasn’t nearly as committed. But as the scandal surrounding Biden’s mishandling of classified materials continues to develop, the public has every reason to question both Biden’s commitment to transparency and whether the contrast between his behavior and Trump’s is as stark as the White House insists it is.   

The public has reason to question Biden’s commitment to transparency and whether the contrast between his behavior and Trump’s is as stark as the White House insists it is.

On Jan. 10, we learned via a leak reported by CBS News that Biden’s lawyers had stumbled across documents with classified markings — highly sensitive public property that should be in the custody of the National Archives — at a Washington think tank outside a secure compartmentalized information facility. Reportedly, everyone was “surprised” by the discovery, the president not least among them. In a carefully worded statement, Biden assured the public that he wasn’t aware of the documents. He added that hadn’t even asked about what was in them, per the advice of his attorneys, and that he was “cooperating fully” with the National Archives to turn them over.

At the time, Biden’s apparent candor and willingness to cooperate with authorities appeared to distinguish his behavior from that of Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom displayed brazen disregard for protocol and treated the allegations of misconduct as little more than a political contretemps. Biden wasn’t hoarding classified material in the pursuit of convenience (as Clinton claimed in her defense) or because the documents held sentimental value (as Trump claimed in his own), and he wasn’t misleading investigators.

If anything, Biden’s allies maintained even without knowing the contents of those documents that this modest and inadvertent infraction is another example of the federal government’s tendency to overclassify everything. That defense of Biden may have gotten a boost Tuesday when an attorney for Mike Pence acknowledged that classified documents from his time as vice president were “inadvertently boxed and transported” to Pence’s Indiana home. Overclassification has been an acknowledged problem for decades, and it’s not hard to believe that an executive branch official might inadvertently mistake one document for another.    

But that’s not the end of the story.

We later learned that Biden and his top advisers hadn’t been as forthcoming as they let on. This cache of documents was discovered on Nov. 2, six days before the midterm elections and a full 68 days before their existence was acknowledged. Yet another batch of documents with classified markings was uncovered by the president’s personal lawyers at his Wilmington, Delaware, home on Dec. 20, a search that was conducted, reportedly, “with the approval of the Justice Department.” As The New York Times uncovered, Biden’s team handled the controversy like a political scandal, not a violation of the rules governing the care of classified materials for which he should immediately come clean. 

The response to the discovery of these documents was at first the exclusive province of what the Times described as a “tight circle” of Biden’s personal lawyers and White House advisers, including longtime political strategist Anita Dunn. According to the Times, it was Dunn who advocated against proactively and disclosing the details of the emerging scandal to the public and focusing instead on emphasizing the distinctions between Biden’s conduct and Trump’s. Moreover, Biden’s team of crisis managers opted to inform only the National Archives of what it had learned, and it fell to the National Archives Office of Inspector General to report what was in the president’s custody to the Justice Department. Hardly an exemplary display of forthrightness and transparency.

Even as the Justice Department agonized over how to handle the fraught investigation into Trump’s mishandling of documents and obstruction of investigators, Biden’s team was selective about what it shared with the public. In its defense, the Times reported, Team Biden maintains that not having been forthcoming with voters was designed to reassure the Justice Department that this was all a simple misunderstanding and avoid the impression that Biden’s folks were “putting their thumb on the scale in an investigation.” That’s one way to spin what less charitable observers would describe as a classic political cover-up.

Biden’s team handled the controversy like a political scandal, not a violation of the rules governing the care of classified materials for which he should immediately come clean.

It appears the Justice Department wasn’t reassured. On Jan. 12, Biden’s attorney general announced that the Justice Department would appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation into the president’s mishandling of documents, erasing yet another distinction between Biden and his predecessor. Eight days later, the Justice Department knocked another pillar out from under the Biden White House’s case when it searched Biden’s Wilmington home and found even more classified documents.

The FBI search FBI was conducted with the consent of Biden’s personal lawyers and wasn’t authorized by a warrant, which distinguishes it from the August search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. But given that Biden’s lawyers either repeatedly overlooked these documents or weren’t entirely forthcoming about what they found, it’s reasonable to wonder why this search was conducted on such friendly terms.

What about the documents themselves? We don’t know precisely what was in those respective caches of classified materials. We do know that some of them and their “surrounding materials” date to Biden’s tenure in the Senate, where classification protocols are enforced and the rules surrounding their handling aren’t ambiguous. How Biden came to have documents that belong in a secure room on Capitol Hill is a mystery, but their dubious provenance suggests Biden, a former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, should have been aware that they were in his possession and that their being in his possession violated protocol.

What’s more, Biden’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, characterized what the FBI removed from the president’s Wilmington home as “six items” containing documents with classification markings. Items? As in boxes? Filing cabinets? Shipping containers? This cagey language practically invites speculation about the size and scope of this particular trove, what it contained and who had access to it over the years it was improperly stored.

By trying to avoid a political scandal, the team around Biden has created one.

By trying to avoid a political scandal, the team around Biden has created one. According to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the slow drip of information around the scandal and the volume of mishandled classified materials in Biden’s possession have ensured that Biden has “lost the high ground” in his effort to establish a durable contrast between him and Trump. Durbin’s fellow Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Tim Kaine of Virginia put their support behind an impartial criminal investigation into the president’s mishandling of classified documents. Biden’s White House has been forced into a defensive crouch, deploying what CNN described as a mix of “bitter sarcasm and exhausted jadedness” in its effort to defuse the slowly boiling scandal. Unable to deny the severity of the scandal anymore, the administration has been reduced to arguing that it won’t take Biden down. But that it is a scandal there can be no doubt.

All this may sound complicated, and while complexity can benefit Biden in some ways, it’s also a double-edged sword. When it comes to the fine dissimilarities between Biden’s scandal and Trump’s, the onus is on the president and his supporters to explain in agonizing detail why Biden’s mishandling of classified documents doesn’t nearly resemble Trump’s mishandling of classified documents.

And as they say, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.”