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Thomas Gift

January 23rd, 2023

Despite more serious allegations, the continued news of Joe Biden’s classified documents means an indictment for Donald Trump is increasingly unlikely

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Thomas Gift

January 23rd, 2023

Despite more serious allegations, the continued news of Joe Biden’s classified documents means an indictment for Donald Trump is increasingly unlikely

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

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Over the weekend, authorities identified yet another tranche of classified documents at Joe Biden’s Delaware home dating back to his time in the Senate and Vice-Presidency. The findings add more fuel to a brewing controversy that has already seen other classified files uncovered at Biden’s former Washington, DC office and his personal garage. In this Q&A, Thomas Gift explains how the latest reports may affect Biden politically and the legal ramifications they may have for the ongoing Justice Department probes into both Biden and Donald Trump. 

How do you see the latest discovery of classified documents affecting Joe Biden? 

The real problem now is the slow drip of revelations. The more documents that are found, the more the story stays in the news, and the harder it becomes for Biden to discount the controversy as an oversight. Clearly, there’s an issue here. Files have now been uncovered in multiple locations. They stretch back to Biden’s time both in the Senate and as vice president. Biden is cooperating with authorities, but there are still questions about transparency. One is why the administration waited to make the initial findings of documents public until after the midterm elections. Another is why Biden hasn’t been more candid in explaining who may have handled the documents and why. Critics say that the response from the White House has been largely inadequate. Some of Biden’s own comments (such as seeming to downplay the seriousness of the threat because the files were locked alongside his Corvette) haven’t helped his cause.

Will the differences between the Biden and Trump cases matter?

The allegations against Trump appear much more serious. That’s not least because they involve potential obstruction, with Trump stonewalling the Justice Department last year over the retrieval of files from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Still, politics is often indifferent to details. The parallels are close enough to create a PR mess for Biden. Republicans are spinning the story and muddying the waters. Meanwhile, Democrats can’t defend Biden without looking hypocritical. With Mar-a-Lago, official after official conveyed that what Trump did was an unforgivable breach to national security. Biden himself said that he was shocked that anyone could be that “irresponsible.” Now, there’s little room for Biden to maneuver except to say that his infractions weren’t as bad as Trump’s. A sure-fire sign of Biden being in a bad place is when he starts a game of “whataboutism.” The Trump White House shouldn’t be an ethical reference point.

What do Americans make of the Biden controversy?

Most Americans find fault with Biden’s actions. According to a recent poll by ABC News / IPSOS, 64 percent think that Biden acted inappropriately in handling classified documents. That’s a strong majority, but it’s still less than the 77 percent who think Trump acted inappropriately. Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong partisan split to the numbers. Roughly 9 in 10 Democrats disapprove of Trump’s managing of classified materials, and nearly the same number of Republicans disapprove of Biden’s. The big question is how important the issue will be for voters, especially if Biden runs for re-election in 2024. If Trump is the Republican nominee, both candidates would probably just as soon sweep the sagas under the rug. But if it’s someone else, the problem becomes more acute for Biden. Other candidates could attack Biden more credibly on the issue without similar scandals hanging around their necks.

Will the Biden investigation affect the Trump investigation, and vice versa?

The investigations are supposed to be independent and apolitical. But the reality is this: Both Biden and Trump say they’re running for president in 2024. One’s a past president. One’s a sitting president. So it’s impossible not to contrast the two cases, or to view them in a vacuum. Both cases have been assigned special counsels to avoid accusations of partiality or a conflict of interest. But it seems increasingly unlikely that Attorney General Merrick Garland will pursue any indictments. Biden has essentially given Trump a “get out of jail free” card. Prosecuting Trump but not Biden would raise the specter of a two-tiered system of justice. The backlash from Republicans would be enormous, and not just from die-hard Trump supporters. For someone like Attorney General Merrick Garland who purports to be concerned institutional legitimacy, the appearance of a double-standard would be stepping over a political cliff.


About the author

Thomas Gift

Thomas Gift is Associate Professor of Political Science at UCL, where he is director of the Centre on US Politics (CUSP).

Posted In: Elections and party politics across the US

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