Biden’s classified documents headache won’t go away quietly | The Hill

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FILE – President Joe Biden waves before boarding Air Force One at El Paso International Airport in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, to travel to Mexico City, Mexico. The Justice Department is reviewing a batch of potentially classified documents found in the Washington office space of President Joe Biden’s former institute, the White House said Monday, Jan. 9. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The recent discoveries of classified government documents at President Joe Biden’s private home and personal office present unprecedented political challenges for his already-embattled administration.  

Namely, these revelations muddy the waters surrounding the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into Former President Donald Trump for also allegedly mishandling classified documents that were discovered in his Mar-a-Lago home during an FBI raid this summer.  

To be sure, the two cases are starkly different: Biden’s appears to be an instance of innocent oversight, rather than multiple occurrences of malfeasance by Trump and his team.  

Yet, this distinction could prove difficult for Democrats to draw in their messaging to the public. Party leaders have privately conceded this, and worry that the development is an unwelcome distraction at an inopportune time, as Democrats are trying to keep voters’ focus on Republican infighting and Trump’s alleged criminal conduct. 

Further, this dissimilarity assuredly won’t dissuade the bloodthirsty House Republican caucus, which had already been planning to investigate and ultimately impeach Biden and members of his administration with whatever claims they can make stick.  

Newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who has found himself beholden to a handful of far-right members due to the concessions he made to secure the speakership — this week suggested that the Republican-led Congress should launch its own probe into Biden over the classified documents, even though the Department of Justice already named a special counsel to do so. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, was even clearer about the chamber’s intentions and indicated that an investigation into Biden is imminent. 

Both ironically and predictably, McCarthy and his caucus have decried the special counsel’s investigation into Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, and plan to use it as a basis to impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland.  

On one hand, this scenario could give Democrats an opportunity to attack Republicans for being hypocritical and extreme, and for putting politics over progress by pursuing partisan investigations into their opponents instead of working to address real issues.  

But at the same time, Democrats — who for months have been suggesting that Trump’s case was a smoking gun that should ultimately lead to his indictment — have likely lost the high ground on this issue, which could make it difficult to drive home this argument with voters. 

To be clear, the federal government should look into both Biden’s and Trump’s cases in an impartial manner, and both men should be treated equally under the law. Garland has worked to emphasize the Department of Justice’s objectivity by appointing separate special counsels to oversee each investigation, though it’s not clear whether voters will ultimately accept this notion of impartiality. 

That being said, in Biden’s case, it has become clear that he most likely had no knowledge of the documents and has made no attempt to withhold them. Further, only a handful of documents were found, and upon discovery, the National Archives was immediately notified, and the materials were voluntarily handed over the next morning.  

On the other hand, Trump had over 300 classified documents improperly stored in his Mar-a-Lago club and residence, including numerous marked top-secret and some containing nuclear information. Trump and his lawyers also ignored a subpoena for the records, and repeatedly stalled and misled government officials and investigators who were working to locate the missing documents. 

There is also evidence from a court filing that “government records were likely concealed and removed” after Trump’s team received the subpoena. The National Archives tried and failed for over a year to retrieve the documents, and the FBI search of Trump’s residence was only ordered as a last-resort step. 

Despite the asymmetrical set of facts between the two cases, Republicans will make every effort to create a mirage of false equivalence between Trump’s and Biden’s cases — regardless of reality — and they could very well succeed. 

This is especially likely in light of the White House’s failure to do damage control on the matter. Last week, the administration announced that confidential documents from Biden’s time as vice president were uncovered at the Penn-Biden Center in Washington. Days later, the White House said that several classified materials had also been found at Biden’s Wilmington residence but it was later disclosed that this matter had been referred to the Department of Justice weeks earlier. Then, on Saturday, additional documents were uncovered at Biden’s home, even though the White House had said previously that only one page was found there. 

In all likelihood, this was simply an oversight, rather than an attempt to conceal. But it ultimately gives the impression that the White House was hiding the subsequent sets of documents from the public, or could still be hiding more. From a communications standpoint, this trickle of information, rather than disclosing everything at once, will only obfuscate Biden’s defense. 

It must be noted how extraordinary these circumstances are: Both the current and former president are under investigation for similar causes as they prepare to run against one another next year. 

Democrats and Republicans alike have been quietly advocating for a change in leadership: Democrats worry about Biden’s age, while Republicans fear that Trump has moved too far out of the mainstream to win a national race. These concurrent investigations could very well intensify these calls on both sides. 

Just two weeks ago, Biden appeared to have strengthened and enhanced his position: Inflation is declining, the GOP is embroiled in chaos, and most Democrats have ostensibly gotten on board with his reelection campaign after months of skepticism.  

However, there is now a level of uncertainty and instability that is problematic for the president, his party and indeed for our increasingly polarized and divided nation. 

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.


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