Editor’s Note: Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator and board member at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.”
This age-old typing drill is a good reminder to hit the partisan pause button on the conversation surrounding the potential mishandling of classified information by both the current and former presidents of the United States.
With President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump under separate special counsel investigations, the wheels of justice are in motion on dual tracks. So, now is the time for all good men – and women – to leave the “whataboutism” at the door and come to the aid of our country with an honest assessment of how our elected officials handle classified documents.
It should go without saying that despite the differences in the two cases, the revelations surrounding Biden should be approached with the same standard as those applied to Trump.
As for how Americans regard the two cases, a Quinnipiac University poll this week shows that 60% think Biden acted inappropriately in the way he handled the documents, although only 37% think he should face criminal charges.
As for Trump, Quinnipiac found in August 2022 that 59% of Americans thought Trump acted inappropriately, while 41% thought he should be prosecuted on criminal charges.
The numbers are remarkably close, and it’s clear the country shares serious concerns regarding both leaders’ actions, as they seem to be headed for a potential presidential rematch. While the cases are like comparing apples and oranges, here is a look at each side: the revelations, the response, and the resulting fallout in advance of 2024.
Trump’s case is concerning due to the sheer amount of documents involved and his resistance to the government’s attempts to retrieve them. After the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved more than 180 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago in January 2022, the Justice Department issued a subpoena demanding any additional classified documents at the estate. While Trump turned over three dozen more classified documents in June 2022, federal agents then found over 100 more at Mar-a-Lago during a court-approved search at Trump’s Florida home in August.
Trump maintains he declassified the documents, claiming it’s a presidential power that can be executed “even by thinking about it.” To be clear, there’s still no record of how, or if, he actually declassified the information.
In his most flippant response to all of this, the former president said this week that he simply kept “inexpensive folders with various words printed on them,” remarking that “they were a ‘cool’ keepsake.”
This was like a kid collecting baseball cards, Trump seemed to suggest – only this time with national security implications. He went on to deny any wrongdoing while casting blame on the current president, writing, “I did NOTHING WRONG. JOE DID!”
Trump is in a tough spot when it comes to addressing this issue. Equating his case with Biden’s doesn’t really help if they are both found guilty of wrongdoing. He could downplay the importance of proper recordkeeping altogether, but the same argument would apply to Biden.
Instead, it seems Trump has chosen to fly in the face of reason by pointing the finger at Biden while denying any wrongdoing. Based on what we know, Trump is the one who appears to be in more legal jeopardy than Biden. For that reason, he needs to keep his mouth shut on the special counsel proceedings, stop referring to the FBI as the “gestapo,” and actually cooperate fully with investigators.
In Biden’s case, we’re talking about a smaller number of documents, and an active effort on behalf of his attorneys to return them. Yet a troubling timeline of revelations raises the question: Should he have been more forthcoming with the American people about the discovery of these documents?
On November 2, the president’s attorneys discovered 10 classified documents in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, DC, and notified the National Archives. One month later, additional documents were found in the garage of the president’s Wilmington, Delaware, home. None of this was made public until early January, when CBS broke the news two months after the midterm elections.
Then in mid-January, an additional six pages of classified information were found in a storage room adjacent to the garage at his Wilmington home. On Saturday, Biden’s personal attorney issued a statement revealing that FBI investigators found more classified materials during a nearly 12-hour search of the president’s home.
You have to remember that on Biden’s first day in office, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki vowed that this administration “would bring transparency and truth back to government.”
But that hasn’t been the case with this documents saga. Last week, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated the document search had been “completed” and that only one page was found in a room adjacent to the garage. But as we now know, additional documents have since been found in Biden’s home.
The press secretary insisted they had “laid out very clearly what occurred.” While it’s fair to acknowledge there were constraints on what she could say about the ongoing investigation, many were left wondering just how clear the White House has been on the matter.
The White House soon devised a new communications strategy: pledge full cooperation, attack House Republicans, and don’t engage on the details of an ongoing matter. While I agree with that communications strategy, it flies in the face of an administration that pledges transparency. You can’t claim the moral high ground when you are busy digging yourself out of a hole.
Meanwhile, President Biden said Thursday he has “no regrets” about his handling of classified documents and “there’s no there there.”
But just as Biden wondered last September about President Trump’s handling of classified documents, the American people are now asking the same question: “How could anyone be that irresponsible?”
And with House Republicans now vowing to investigate Biden, this slow drip of negative news could erode his trustworthiness and credibility and have a real detrimental effect on the president, who will have fewer legislative accomplishments to tout in the next two years due to the GOP majority in the lower chamber. This could certainly damage Biden’s prospects if he decides to run for reelection.
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How will this document saga impact Trump’s 2024 aspirations? You can bet his base will continue to see him as a victim here, but rational Republicans are clear-eyed about his baggage. Not to mention that other GOP candidates are expected to step onto the primary stage. Regardless of who his competitors end up being, Trump needs to scrap his victimhood messaging when he hits the campaign trail in South Carolina next week and focus on relevant issues for voters, like the economy or crime.
In the end, what’s truly irresponsible is for the government to allow the callous disregard of classified documents to continue. While we wait for the special counsel investigations to play out, it’s clear the system of safeguarding documents needs to be reformed.
Regardless of the political implications for 2024, it’s worth remembering that these papers are not “cool keepsakes” or sports car manuals – they’re matters of national security.