Yesterday, the US Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate President Joe Biden’s purported mishandling of classified materials from his time as vice president. In this Q&A, Thomas Gift explains the controversy, why it could have far-reaching political implications for Biden, and how it could affect the investigation into Donald Trump for similar allegations of wrongdoing.
What do we know so far about the files Biden had in his possession?
On Monday, it was revealed that classified files were found “in a locked closet” of Joe Biden’s office at the Penn Biden Center, a research unit of the University of Pennsylvania, in Washington, DC. The documents, which were originally discovered in early November, were promptly handed over to the National Archives. Following the discovery, Biden’s legal aides conducted a more extensive search of properties where Biden also kept belongings from his time as vice president. That’s when the second tranche of classified documents were uncovered on December 20th, in Biden’s home in Delaware. The Justice Department has responded by appointing a special counsel, Robert Hur, a former US attorney, to probe the matter. On Thursday, Biden held a press conference to discuss the controversy. He insisted that he takes the handling of classified dossiers “seriously,” but offered few specifics on how the documents may have gotten where they were.
Does the timeline of the discoveries matter?
Critics are latching on to the fact that the original batch of classified materials were found on November 2nd. The Justice Department was notified of the discovery two days later. However, the story wasn’t disclosed until just recently — after the 2022 midterms. That raises questions about why the information wasn’t made public so that voters could consider it ahead of the elections. Harvard Law School professor and former Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, for example, has called the timeline a “real problem,” insisting that the public should have been apprised of the story immediately. Especially in light of accusations that many media outlets suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story in the lead-up to the 2020 election, this will add more fuel to charges that powerful institutions—whether in government or the press—are censoring news to which the public is entitled.
Are the charges as serious as those against Donald Trump?
Biden and his supporters spent months talking about how dangerous it was that Trump had classified files that weren’t stored properly. So, for Biden to be dogged by a similar problem opens up the White House to significant criticism. One batch of files is problematic. But it could potentially be dismissed as an innocent oversight. A second batch starts to look like a pattern. Biden, of course, says that he’s “cooperating fully and completely.” Moreover, it’s important to stress that the both the circumstances and the responses to allegations against Biden and Trump have been different. Most importantly, Biden handed over the files immediately once they were found. By contrast, Trump stonewalled the Justice Department, leading to the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago in August last year. Still, politics doesn’t always care about specific facts. The parallels are strong enough that critics can use the discovery to muddy the political waters.
How will the controversy play out politically?
It’s clear that Donald Trump will use these revelations to make the case that there’s a double standard being applied. He’ll say the response is muted when Joe Biden handles classified materials inappropriately. But in Trump’s case there was a full-scale raid at his home by federal authorities. It’s again important to stress that the facts are sufficiently distinct that it’s important not to draw false equivalencies. But from a political standpoint, this is a huge gift to Trump. It largely undermines the ability of Biden to attack Trump on this point. Additionally, it’s clear that the case will ratchet up the political pressure on Attorney General Merrick Garland not to indict Trump for keeping classified materials. The Justice Department is supposed to act impartially and without regard to politics. Yet if it tries to indict Trump but not Biden, it will stoke accusations that Trump is being selectively prosecuted.
- These remarks are based in part on an interview by Thomas Gift for BBC World News on Jan. 12, 2023.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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