Editor’s note: Alice Stewart is a political commentator for CNN and a board member of the John F. Kennedy Institute for Politics at Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the author. See more reviews on CNN.
“Now is the time for all good men to help their country.”
This age-old typing exercise is a good reminder to hit the partisan pause button on conversation about the possible mishandling of classified information by 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 turning in dual lanes. So now is the time for all you good men – and women – to put the “what” aside and help our country with an honest assessment of how our elected representatives handle confidential documents.
It goes 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 view the two cases, a Quinnipiac University poll this week shows that 60% think Biden acted inappropriately in his handling of the documents, though 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 is clear that the country shares serious concerns about the actions of both leaders as they appear to be heading towards a potential presidential rematch. While the cases are like comparing apples and oranges, here’s a look at each side: the revelations, the response, and the resulting fallout before 2024.
Trump’s case is troubling due to the large amount of documents involved and his resistance to the administration’s attempts to retrieve them. After the National Archives and Records Administration recovered more than 180 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago in January 2022, the Department of Justice issued a subpoena demanding any additional confidential documents in the estate. While Trump turned over more than three dozen classified documents in June 2022, federal agents found more than 100 at Mar-a-Lago during a court-approved search of Trump’s Florida home in August.
Trump claims he has declassified the documents, claiming it is a presidential power that can be executed “even thinking about it”. To be clear, there is 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 “cheap folders with lots of words printed on them”, commenting that “they were a ‘cool’ souvenir”.
It was like a kid collecting baseball cards, Trump seemed to suggest – only this time with national security implications. He denied any wrongdoing while blaming the current president, writing: “I have done NOTHING WRONG. JOE DID!
Trump is in a tough spot when it comes to addressing this issue. Equating your case with Biden’s doesn’t help much if both are found guilty of wrongdoing. He could completely underestimate the importance of proper record keeping, but the same argument would apply to Biden.
Instead, it appears Trump has chosen to go against reason, pointing the finger at Biden while denying any wrongdoing. Based on what we know, Trump appears to be at greater legal risk than Biden. For that reason, he needs to keep his mouth shut about special counsel proceedings, stop referring to the FBI as the “Gestapo” and actually cooperate fully with investigators.
In Biden’s case, we are talking about a smaller number of documents and an active effort by his lawyers to return them. However, a troubling timeline of revelations begs the question: should he have been more direct with the American people about the discovery of these documents?
On November 2, attorneys for the president discovered 10 confidential documents in a locked cabinet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, DC, and notified the National Archives. A month later, additional documents were found in the garage of the president’s home in Wilmington, Delaware. None of this was publicized until early January, when CBS broke the news two months after the midterm elections.
Then, in mid-January, six more pages of classified information were found in a warehouse adjacent to the garage of his Wilmington home. On Saturday, Biden’s personal attorney released a statement revealing that FBI investigators found more classified materials during a nearly 12-hour search of the president’s home.
It should be remembered that, on the first day of Biden’s term, the then White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, promised that this government “would bring transparency and truth back to government”.
But that was not the case with this saga of documents. Last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the search for documents was “completed” and that only one page was found in a room adjacent to the garage. But, as we now know, additional documents were found in Biden’s home.
The press secretary insisted that they “set out very clearly what happened”. While it’s fair to acknowledge that there were restrictions on what she could say about the ongoing investigation, many were left wondering just how clear the White House was on the matter.
The White House soon devised a new communications strategy: promise full cooperation, attack House Republicans, and not get involved in the details of an ongoing matter. While I agree with this communication strategy, it runs counter to a government that promises transparency. You can’t claim the moral high ground when you’re busy digging yourself out of a hole.
Meanwhile, President Biden said Thursday that he has “no regrets” about his handling of classified documents and “there’s nothing 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 so irresponsible?”
And with House Republicans now pledging to investigate Biden, this slow trickle of negative news could erode his trustworthiness and credibility and have a real damaging effect on the president, who will have fewer legislative achievements to tout over the next two years due to the GOP majority. . in the lower chamber. That could certainly hurt Biden’s prospects if he decides to run for re-election.
How will this document saga affect Trump’s 2024 aspirations? You can bet his base will continue to see him as a victim here, but rational Republicans are keeping an eye on his bag. Not to mention other GOP candidates must enter the primary stage. Regardless of who his competitors are, Trump needs to ditch his victimization messages when he arrives on the campaign trail in South Carolina next week and focus on issues relevant to voters like the economy or crime.
In the end, what is really irresponsible is the government allowing the callous disregard for classified documents to continue. While we wait for the special prosecutor’s investigations to come to an end, it is clear that the document protection system needs to be reformed.
Regardless of the political implications for 2024, it’s worth remembering that these papers are not “legal souvenirs” or sports car manuals – they are matters of national security.