Controversies surrounding the discovery of classified documents in the personal quarters of President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence have helped some misperceptions flourish about how those documents wind up in places they shouldn’t be. The fact that classified documents have been located in storage areas belonging to the three leaders doesn’t mean they were the ones who packed them up and hauled them away. Much as Republicans want to demonize Biden and Democrats want to vilify Trump for the documents’ discovery, there’s much more to the story of how they got mishandled.
If willful disregard of the law was involved, there absolutely should be legal accountability regardless of the person’s current or former standing. It also matters whether the people under investigation deliberately withheld documents or obstructed federal authorities from retrieving them. On that score, Trump so far appears to be the only one who claimed a right to keep documents that belong to the government.
Pence has decided to fall on his sword. “During the closing days of the administration, when materials were boxed and assembled, some of which were shipped to our personal residence, mistakes were made,” Pence told Fox News last week, adding, “I take full responsibility for it, and we’re going to continue to support every appropriate inquiry into it.”
Pence’s statement of contrition and responsibility comes in stark contrast to Trump’s refusal to admit any error while insisting he possessed the ability to declassify documents just by thinking about it. The Biden White House, meanwhile, is able to hide behind the existence of an ongoing investigation to avoid explaining how Biden might have mishandled his documents, including some dating back to his Senate days.
Despite Pence’s full-throated mea culpa, it’s not as if he picked up a classified folder and tucked it under his waistband to sneak it out of his office. Nor did he personally pack all the boxes as he vacated the vice-presidential suite. Security-cleared government movers swoop down in droves to pack up the president’s and vice president’s belongings quickly to make way for their successors to move in on Inauguration Day. Although documents aren’t supposed to be in that mix, the frenzy of packing and moving creates a range of possibilities.
Biden was obviously too quick to condemn Trump’s handling of top secret and other classified documents before making sure his own personal spaces were document-free (which they weren’t). The difference is that Biden and Pence opened the door for federal agents to ensure there weren’t more documents. Trump slammed it shut, forcing the FBI to obtain a search warrant.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, including the lower-level officials who failed to keep tabs on where sensitive documents were placed. But Trump is the only one asserting he had a right to keep them. Therein lies the difference.
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