Classified Documents

Alan Zendell, January 13, 2023

It’s obvious on its face that no matter how you feel about them, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are entirely different kinds of people. The kerfuffles over the handling of classified documents is but the latest example.

Throughout his business life, Trump consistently trod the line between legal and illegal, right and wrong, moral and unethical. He has been sued countless times by people who worked for him and accused him of not paying them for completed work, and by people who paid him for something (enrollment at Trump University, for example) and claimed they’d been defrauded. Trump, for his part, has always bragged that creating chaos and opacity and graying the line between right and wrong were evidence of his brilliant business acumen.

Throughout his decades of public service, Biden has at times been less than perfect, his two most memorable lapses being the infamous plagiarism scandal that sank his first attempt to run for president and his regrettable failure to shield attorney and witness Anita Hill from vile personal attacks during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. While one can never be certain everyone told the truth, the plagiary incident appears to have been the fault of Biden’s speechwriter. No one has ever suggested that Biden was a knowing participant in the incident. And as much as I’ve admired Biden over the years, the Anita Hill incident was clearly a failure on his part, possibly the low point of his career.

In comparing Trump and Biden, it’s clear that their failures and errors were of entirely different natures. With Trump, pushing the envelope, brash, narcissistic behavior, and a general lack of respect for rules, standards of conduct, and other people is a way of life. In Biden we have what I believe is a highly moral, committed politician who does not lean toward extremes, but like the rest of us, is human and fallible. While Trump often doesn’t appear to know the difference between truth and lies, Biden’s openness and sometimes careless seeming, off-the-cuff frankness caused the media to label him a gaffe machine.

We’ll have to wait for the special counsels’ investigations of the classified documents incidents to know the details of what actually occurred, but we already have clear indications of what may have happened. Trump’s problems occurred when the National Archives and Records Administration investigated why many documents that were public property and required by federal law to be preserved under its auspices appeared to be missing.

During more than a year of back-and-forth, as investigators continually turned up more evidence of mishandling, Trump: claimed the FBI had no right to raid his office, though they clearly did; asserted that as a former president, the documents were his personal property; repeatedly said he had returned all documents requested by NARA, although subsequent searches turned up cartons filled with them; and when it was finally clear that there was no record of him ever de-classifying them, absurdly claimed that he had de-classified them with his mind. When Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel, Trump screamed it was part of the never-ceasing witch hunt aimed at discrediting him and evidence of the Democrats weaponizing the government against him.

When Biden’s own people discovered a small number of documents marked classified while cleaning out the Wilmington office he occupied after leaving office as Vice President, they immediately reported the incident to NARA and turned the documents over as required by law. When additional documents were found locked up at Biden’s home, his attorneys did the same thing, and when Garland assigned a special counsel to look into the matter, neither Biden nor any of his people objected. Notably, Biden didn’t claim to have telepathic powers.

In another interesting contrast, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly supported Trump’s accusations that the investigation of his documents was politically motivated and characterized the appointment of a special prosecutor as window dressing.  In the Biden case, he claims that the appointment of a special prosecutor is simply a tactic to head off a Congressional inquiry.

It’s impossible for anyone to predict the outcome of either investigation, but Garland has been clear and consistent, treating them equally, even though one involves a former president who is now a private citizen and the other is a sitting president. It’s worth noting, too, that as president, Trump often claimed he was above the law. Biden has always said no one is above the law, and though his White House has been accused of handling the issue clumsily, there has been no public denial of wrongdoing. The White House is letting the Department of Justice do its job.

Whichever way the two investigations turn out, the mishandling of classified documents is a serious matter that must be exempt from politics.

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