A couple of weeks after the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, the Associated Press asked former Vice President Mike Pence about whether he might have a similar problem. The Republican said he didn’t take any classified information with him when he left office.
“No, not to my knowledge,” Pence told the AP at the time.
As it turns out, that wasn’t quite right. NBC News reported this afternoon:
A 'small number' of classified documents was discovered last week at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home, according to letters Pence’s counsel sent to the National Archives obtained by NBC News.
Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, told Archives officials in a letter dated Jan. 18, “The additional records appear to be a small number of documents bearing classified markings that were inadvertently boxed and transported to the personal home of the former Vice President at the end of the last Administration.”
The letter added that the Republican “was unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence. Vice President Pence understands the high importance of protecting sensitive and classified information and stands ready and willing to cooperate fully with the National Archives and any appropriate inquiry.”
Though this detail hasn’t been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, a CNN report added, “The FBI and the Justice Department’s National Security Division have launched a review of the documents and how they ended up in Pence’s house in Indiana.”
It’s important to emphasize that there’s no reason to assume that the former vice president was lying when he said last summer that he hadn’t taken any classified materials when he left office. In fact, it’s fairly easy to believe that Pence simply didn’t know, and the documents were removed accidentally.
In other words, despite recent GOP hysterics about President Joe Biden, the most likely explanation is that Biden and Pence both inadvertently took documents upon leaving office.
What’s more, the political world is collectively confronted with the possibility that other former presidents and vice presidents might very well have unknowingly made the same mistake. Pence is the latest, but I’d be cautious before assuming he’s the last.
It’s not even altogether clear who exactly should be blamed for something like this. As officials prepare to leave office, and overworked aides facing tight deadlines scramble to fill boxes, it stands to reason that accidents will happen — and these accidents should not necessarily be seen as scandalous. There are related questions about over-classification practices being applied to materials that are relatively benign.
But in terms of the political impact of a story like this one, there’s a larger truth to keep in mind: In the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search, we’re reminded that the question isn’t who had classified documents, it’s what people did after discovering they had the materials.
Biden disclosed the discoveries, returned the documents, vowed to cooperate with investigators, and literally invited Justice Department officials to his home to conduct a thorough review. Pence, by all appearances, also appears to have handled the discoveries responsibly.
Neither of these men ignored requests to return the materials. They didn’t fail to comply with a federal subpoena. They didn’t return some documents, while holding on to others, all while refusing to cooperate in good faith. They didn’t propose a possible trade in which they’d consider returning documents, but only if officials gave they something else in return. They didn’t peddle post-hoc “declassification” nonsense.
They didn’t obstruct the retrieval process. They didn’t launch a months-long crusade against federal law enforcement, literally equating the bureau with “the Gestapo.” They didn’t raise the prospect of FBI agents "planting" incriminating evidence against them. They didn’t pretend the revelations were part of a “witch hunt.”
In other words, today’s Pence story manages to make Donald Trump look even worse. The former president, unlike his former vice president, stands accused of knowingly taking classified materials that didn't belong to him, refusing to give them back, and allegedly obstructing the retrieval process.
I'll look forward to congressional Republicans explaining why they consider the Biden story worthy of multiple investigations, while they ignore the Pence and Trump stories simultaneously.