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Trump is still — yes still — the odd man out on the classified documents front

Mike Pence handed over the documents in his home as soon as they were found. So did Joe Biden — but not Trump.

It’s the sort of plot development that feels almost predestined: A “small number” of classified documents were found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home in Indiana, we learned Tuesday. The news injects yet another bit of complexity into the politics surrounding the documents that have been retrieved from both former President Donald Trump’s and President Joe Biden’s residences.

But Trump gains no support from his former No. 2’s becoming a part of this narrative. On the contrary, when they are held up against the timeline before and after the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, Pence’s actions show how much of the ongoing jeopardy Trump faces is of his own making.

NBC News reported Tuesday that Greg Jacob, a lawyer who acts as Pence’s designated representative to the National Archives and Records Administration, sent two letters to the archives in the last week. In the first, dated Jan. 18, Jacob requests the agency’s assistance in collecting “a small number of documents bearing classified markings that were inadvertently boxed and transported” to Pence’s home in 2021. Pence was “unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence,” Jacob wrote, adding that Pence “immediately secured those documents in a locked safe pending further direction on proper handling from the National Archives.”

In the second letter, dated Jan. 22, Jacob reveals that three days prior, the Justice Department requested direct possession of the classified documents rather than have them go to the archives first. Pence agreed, and the FBI showed up that evening to collect them from his safe. Jacob also said he’d agreed to turn over four boxes of other documents for National Archives review on Monday.

I’m amazed none of these details leaked, given the amount of scrutiny of document retention these last five months. One reason CNN was most likely first able to report this incident is that Pence’s team “notified congressional leaders and relevant committees of the discovery on Tuesday.” Pence “has agreed to fully cooperate with congressional oversight and any questions we have about the matter,” House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., said in a statement, adding that Pence’s “transparency stands in stark contrast to Biden White House staff who continue to withhold information from Congress and the American people.”

That’s quite the declaration from Comer, when Pence’s choices line up more closely with Biden’s than with Trump’s. After all, just a few days ago, conservatives were side-eying Biden’s team for reporting the discovered documents to the National Archives rather than alerting the Justice Department. Now that we know that Pence took the same steps, it’s hard to see that talking point’s lasting for much longer.

And then, well, there’s Trump. It was the National Archives that reached out to him, rather than the other way around, back in 2021. Not only did he apparently know about the federal documents in his possession, but he also specifically obscured them from the Justice Department when top officials visited last summer. The evidence of his obstruction was enough for a federal magistrate to sign off on a search warrant for any and all documents that Trump was still retaining. FBI agents left Mar-a-Lago in August with 11,000 documents, making up nearly 22,000 pages, that should have been handed over to National Archives — not including the roughly 100 documents with classification markings that the Justice Department immediately began poring over.

Trump has come up with all kinds of reasons he’s actually not at fault for not having returned the documents, or at the very least beyond reproach. They encompass the claim that he’d declassified all the documents in his possession simply by saying so to his claim that he was mostly hanging on to “cool” empty folders with classification markings to claiming that executive privilege meant the executive branch had no right to retrieve the federal government’s property.

There’s every bit of evidence that Trump was informed that what he was doing was wrong — that the documents he claimed were his were actually not and needed to be returned — and did it anyway. And therein lies the key distinguisher between him on one side and Pence and Biden on the other.

The other factor that can’t be overstated is the judgment of the men in question. Biden and his team gambled that if they were cooperative with the authorities, the whole mess could go away before it became an issue. It was a solid legal move, though a poor public relations decision once the delay became known. Pence kept quiet until the documents got back to the archives, which is slightly more excusable. And neither of them reportedly had anywhere near the sheer volume of documents that Trump was hoarding in their possession.

But in keeping with his basest of instincts, Trump fought back. He spent weeks in court trying to delay the FBI’s investigation, ultimately losing his battle to keep the review of documents from proceeding. And through filing after filing, he both continued to give the story oxygen and give the Justice Department’s lawyers chances to correct the record publicly.

There’s a lot that is going to have to be unpacked about the way classified materials are handled in Washington, especially after a president — or a vice president — leaves office. But it’s a conversation that most likely would have been confined to think tanks and policy wonks, had it not been for Trump’s insatiable need to play the victim.