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The Exhausting "Classified Documents" Debate
The politics of normalizing the outrageous.
Are you tired of hearing about high-ranking government officials mishandling classified documents? I know I am.
It’s not because I don’t think these stories are important. They absolutely are, whether the target of the discussion is Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Mike Pence, or maybe someone else before too long. In my view, each of these incidents is a serious one, deserving of the responsible party or parties being held to account.
Still, I’ve personally grown tired of listening to people talk about it… for a few different reasons.
First, this is a pretty depressing topic. Millions of people voted these individuals into office, at the top level of our country’s executive branch of government. These leaders were entrusted with responsibilities and highly sensitive knowledge that very few Americans are. And while I’ve long viewed Trump and Biden, in particular, as being too reckless, incompetent, and unserious to effectively serve in the offices they’ve held, I previously hadn’t put much thought into their capacity to continue compromising their public oaths and responsibilities once they were out of office.
Of course, any individual can do wrong by their country, but the thought of a top-ranking public official treating classified documents as their own personal property, and taking them home with them when they leave the job, is especially disheartening.
Another reason I’m tired of hearing about this stuff is that a lot of the media analysis, and the national discussion surrounding these stories, has been really bad. Partisans on both sides have been twisting themselves into pretzels to explain why it’s no big deal that their guy mishandled classified documents, but arguing that it’s simply egregious that the other guy did it.
Sure, these stories have some notable differences.
Trump had a lot more classified documents in his possession than Biden did (though Biden’s number has been growing).
Trump played games with the National Archives for a year and a half, falsely claiming he had turned over everything he’d taken. That’s what led to a warranted FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. Biden’s team pro-actively turned over the initial documents they discovered in one of his offices, and Biden (albeit begrudgingly) consented to a search of his private residence, to avoid a warrant and also charges of obstruction. Pence appears to have been even more accommodating.
Some of the classified documents at Biden’s home were reportedly from his days in the U.S. Senate, which is of particular interest being that senators aren’t ever supposed to be in outside possession of classified documents.
There’s also the issue of classification levels, and the nature of the documented information.
But as I said in a previous column, it’s all bad. It’s all outrageous and unacceptable. And there’s no evidence that any of these people used whatever relevant power they once had to declassify the documents. Even in an alternate universe, in which they did go through that process, such willy-nilly declassification, for the purpose of taking documents home for personal use (or just to have) after leaving office, too would have been wildly inappropriate.
Simply put, there is no legal relevance in comparing and contrasting what Trump did with what Biden did with what Pence did — only political relevance. The law shouldn’t offer allowances for doing something that “wasn’t as bad as what that other guy did.” The law itself should be the measure, not an individual’s conduct relative to another individual. That’s why the special counsels looking into these matters are independent from each other.
But here’s a problem: political considerations will assuredly factor into the decision of whether to charge any of these people with anything. It will, unfortunately, matter that all three will (probably) be running for president in 2024. It will also matter how the public would predictably perceive one president or vice president being charged over his mishandling of classified material, while another one isn’t.
Here’s another problem: if a U.S. president, a U.S. vice-president, and a guy who’s held both titles mishandled classified documents, does that mean this type of thing isn’t that big of a deal after all? Is it more the rule than the exception — the norm rather than the outlier?
The answer from just about every classified-document expert (not political pundit) who’s weighed in on this matter has been a big hell no! They, almost in concert, insist that this is truly bizarre stuff, and that the separate (and legitimate) issue of over-classification doesn’t make these instances any less bizarre.
Yet, the average Joe paying only passing attention to these stories has logical reason to believe otherwise, and even objectively view these bipartisan infractions as a legal wash. It shouldn’t be that way, but with the political stakes so high, serious or sharply different prosecutorial approaches may well be deemed too large of a public-perception headache for the DOJ to appropriately follow through on.
So yeah, I’m tired of all the talk. At this point, I’d much rather just let the special counsels do their work, independent from all the political-bickering, exhausting whataboutism, and other normalizing rhetoric about something that’s not at all normal.
But our current political environment doesn’t exactly allow for that.
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