Washington: Joe Biden’s White House is in a mess of its own making.
A few weeks ago, Democrats were enjoying – with popcorn and all – the chaos of a Republican right-wing mutiny that humiliated its would-be Speaker and exposed a party that couldn’t get its House in order.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden are both under investigation for their handling of classified documents.Credit:AP
Now, the US president is embroiled in a classified documents scandal that is derailing his agenda, blunting his plans to announce another presidential run, and leaving his government on tenterhooks as a special counsel probes the matter.
Former president Donald Trump – under investigation over his own handling of classified documents – couldn’t have asked for a better gift.
First, some background in case you missed it.
On November 2, six days before the US midterm elections, Biden’s personal lawyers unexpectedly found classified documents from his time in the Obama administration, at the Penn Biden Centre think-tank in Washington DC, where he had an office after his vice presidential term.
While the records were handed back to the National Archives immediately, it took until January 9 for Biden’s lawyers to make this discovery public, and they only did so after media got wind of the story.
But even then, they omitted the fact that additional documents were also found in the garage of Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 20.
Indeed, it wasn’t until January 12, after further media reports, that Biden’s lawyers confirmed that a “small number” of additional classified documents were found at two locations in the president’s home.
Also that day, as documents were being transferred to the Justice Department, another five pages with classified markings were discovered – but this wasn’t disclosed until last weekend.
Contained in a court filing by the Justice Department and redacted in part by the FBI, this photo shows documents seized during the August search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.Credit:DoJ/AP
And yet fundamental questions remain unanswered, driving Republicans and much of the US media into a frenzy.
What do the documents contain? Was national security compromised? Who had access to them? What drove the initial search at Biden’s old office in the first place? Why did the White House wait months to disclose the material had been found? Have there been any more searches?
To be sure, there are differences between Trump’s case and Biden’s: both in terms of the smaller number of documents in the president’s possession compared to Trump’s and the fact that Biden’s lawyers handed over the material as soon as they were found.
In contrast, Trump and his aides repeatedly resisted efforts to retrieve the documents stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate, which is precisely why the FBI took the extraordinary step of raiding his property in August 2022.
An armed Secret Service agent stands outside Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, in Palm Beach, Florida.Credit:AP
But the issue has become such a political headache for Biden that it’s drowning out the string of good news he wanted to use as a launchpad for his re-election bid: from cheaper gas prices and the slight easing of inflation, to his record of legislative accomplishments on infrastructure, manufacturing and renewable energy.
Now, not only have the Democrats lost the moral high ground over Trump’s handling of classified documents, the fact that Biden is also being probed by a special counsel opens up the possibility of more searches, more material being found, and more leaks.
This will give the new Republican House majority – whose leaders have already written to the White House demanding answers and set up a committee to probe the “weaponisation” of the Justice Department – further ammunition to play with.
Little wonder Biden is said to be furious about his less-than-ideal start to the year.
President Joe Biden speaks to Russian president Vladimir Putin on the phone from his private residence in Wilmington, Delaware, in 2021.Credit:The White House/AP
Part of the headache the president now faces comes as a result of the criticism he levelled at Trump over the classified documents seized by the FBI.
Asked during a 60 Minutes interview what he thought when he saw the now-viral photo of top secret documents laid out on the floor of Mar-a-Lago, Biden replied: “How that could possibly happen?”
“I thought: what data was in there that may compromise sources and methods,” he added. “It’s just totally irresponsible.”
Part of it also comes to the White House’s own clumsy public relations strategy, which lacked transparency and made the president look like he had something to hide.
Indeed, as former Obama strategist David Axelrod told CNN: “The critical mistake was in fact, the drip, drip, drip. The essence of crisis communications is: figure out where the story is going, get there as soon as possible, get there as thoroughly as possible”.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. While there is no evidence that Biden committed a crime, mishandling of classified documents is nonetheless a serious violation of US federal law.
Regardless of there being hundreds of documents (in Trump’s case) or just a “small number” (in Biden’s case), the Espionage Act states that anyone who “through gross negligence” allows sensitive material “to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed” could face a fine, a 10-year maximum jail term or both.
The latest documents saga is unlikely to reach that high bar, but the fact that a current and a former president are being investigated for potential violations of the act doesn’t exactly instil confidence in democratic institutions – no matter which side of politics you’re on.
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