It has now become clear that Joe Biden, upon his exit from the Vice Presidency in the Obama administration, took classified documents with him to his office at The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
CBS News reports that upon Biden’s lawyers “discovering” these documents (Biden reports that he was surprised by this development), it was immediately reported to the FBI and the documents were returned: “the same day the material was discovered, Nov. 2, the White House counsel’s office notified the National Archives, which took possession of the materials the following morning… Since that discovery, the President’s personal attorneys have cooperated with the Archives and the Department of Justice in a process to ensure that any Obama-Biden Administration records are appropriately in the possession of the Archives…The Presidential Records Act requires all presidential and vice-presidential documents be turned over to the National Archives. There are special protocols to keep classified information secure.”
Subsequent headlines indicate that there are additional documents—perhaps also classified—that were removed, complicating the current administration’s ability to express outrage at the former President’s actions regarding such documents.
Republicans immediately cried foul—drawing the comparison between Biden’s actions and President Trump’s removal of documents from his Mar-a-Lago home. Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and the recently formed Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government said the American public “deserved to know earlier about the revelation of Biden’s classified documents.” Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has requested that the U.S. intelligence community conduct a ‘damage assessment’ of the documents found at the Penn Center.
However, claiming the two incidents are similar and any attempt to equate the two incidents does further disservice to the quest for truth in our polarized society. As Meg Kinnard of the Associated Press indicates, there is a stark difference between the two incidents: “The [Biden] administration has also said that the records were turned over the same day they were discovered, without any intent to conceal. That’s important because the Justice Department historically looks for willfulness, or an intent to mishandle government secrets, in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.”
Though it is unclear as to his motivation, Donald Trump retained hundreds of documents from his time in the White House, proclaiming to the news media and others that they were “his” even though federal laws are clear that such documents belong to the public. Stringent guidelines dictate how classified documents are to be handled to insure the safety of national security personnel whose lives may be at risk should systems and methods become known and fall into the hands of adversary nations or rogue actors.
If we take Biden at his word, as soon as he learned about the existence of such documents, they were turned them over to the FBI “the following morning.” On the other hand, when documents were discovered missing from Donald Trump’s files, the former President continued to change his story, failed to reveal the total number of documents in his possession and then battled the Justice Department for months to keep from returning them.
Years ago, I was engaged in media justice work for the United Church of Christ. The Fairness Doctrine (passed in 1949 and then rescinded in 1987) “required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints.” This became a sacrosanct principle in media justice and while I concur with the fairness doctrine in principle, it was developed long before the age of social media and the time of “alternative facts,” rampant misinformation, and vastly divergent information bubbles. Such developments foster “whataboutism” and supposed moral equivalencies that often fail to promote “the public good.” Hence, the comparison between Biden’s misplaced classified documents and those of former President Trump is ripe for protestations of moral equivalency.
Setting aside for the moment, the number of documents discovered, the greater question involves how the respective presidents responded to these documents’ existence: Biden immediately offered a mea culpa and cooperated with law enforcement; Trump, as is his wont, continued to change his story about where and how many of “his” documents were retained and then proceeded to obstruct federal officials from securing the documents in question. These incidents are clearly not the same.