Opinion: President Biden, there is a there

Opinion: President Biden, there is a there

Opinion: President Biden, there is a there

Editor’s note: Alice Stewart is a political commentator at CNN and a board member at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University. The views expressed in this comment belong to the author. Check out more opinions on CNN.



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“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.”

This age-old writing exercise is a good reminder to press the partisan pause button in conversation about the possible misuse of classified information by the current and former Presidents of the United States.

With President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump under separate Special Counsel investigations, the wheels of justice are turning on two tracks. So now is the time for all good men – and women – to ditch whataboutism and come to the rescue of our country with an honest assessment of how our elected officials are handling classified documents.

Alice Stewart

It goes without saying that despite the differences in the two cases, the revelations surrounding Biden should be approached with the same yardstick as those surrounding Trump.

How Americans view the two cases, a Quinnipiac University poll this week shows that 60% think Biden acted improperly in handling the documents, although just 37% think he should be prosecuted .

As for Trump, Quinnipiac found in August 2022 that 59% of Americans thought Trump acted inappropriately, while 41% believed he should be prosecuted on criminal charges.

The numbers are remarkably close, and it’s clear the country shares serious concerns about the actions of both leaders as they head towards a potential presidential rematch. While the cases are like comparing apples and oranges, here’s a look at both sides: the revelations, the response, and the ensuing fallout ahead of 2024.

Trump’s case is worrying because of the sheer volume of documents involved and his resistance to government attempts to retrieve them. After the National Archives and Records Administration retrieved more than 180 classified documents from Mar-a-Lago in January 2022, the Justice Department issued a subpoena demanding all additional classified documents at the property. While Trump turned over three dozen other classified documents in June 2022, federal agents found over 100 others in Mar-a-Lago during a court-authorized search of Trump’s Florida home in August.

Trump claims he declassified the documents, claiming it’s a presidential power that can be executed “even if you think about it.” To be clear, there is still no record of how or if he actually released the information.

In his most perfunctory response to all of this this week, the former president said he simply had “inexpensive binders with different words printed on them,” noting that “they’re a ‘cool’ keepsake.”

It was like a kid collecting baseball cards, Trump seemed to imply — only this time with national security implications. He continued to deny any wrongdoing while blaming the current President, writing: “I did NOTHING WRONG. JOE HAS!”

Trump is in a difficult position when it comes to addressing this issue. Equating his case with Biden’s doesn’t really help when both are found guilty of wrongdoing. He might downplay the importance of a proper record overall, but the same argument would apply to Biden.

Instead, Trump seems to have decided to smack sanity in the face by pointing the finger at Biden while denying any wrongdoing. For all we know, Trump is the one who appears to be more legally at risk than Biden. That’s why he needs to shut up on the special prosecutors’ case, stop calling the FBI the “Gestapo,” and actually cooperate fully with investigators.

In Biden’s case, we’re talking about a smaller number of documents and an active effort by his attorneys to return them. But a troubling schedule of disclosures begs the question: Should he have been more forthcoming with the American people about the discovery of these documents?

On November 2, the President’s attorneys discovered 10 classified documents in a locked cabinet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, DC and notified the National Archives. A month later, more documents were found in the garage of the President’s home in Wilmington, Delaware. None of this was released until early January, when CBS broke the news two months after the midterm elections.

Then, in mid-January, another six pages of classified information were found in a storage room next to the garage at his Wilmington home. On Saturday, Biden’s personal attorney issued a statement showing FBI investigators uncovered more classified material during a nearly 12-hour search of the president’s home.

You have to remember that on Biden’s first day in office, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki promised that this administration would “bring transparency and truth back to government.”

But that was not the case with this documentary saga. Last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the document search had been “completed” and only one page was found in a room next to the garage. But as we now know, other documents have since been found in Biden’s home.

The spokesman insisted that they had “set out very clearly what happened”. While it’s fair to acknowledge that there were limitations to what she could say about the ongoing investigation, many questioned how clear the White House was on the matter.

The White House soon developed a new communications strategy: promise full cooperation, attack House Republicans, and don’t delve into the details of an ongoing matter. Although I agree with this communication strategy, it contradicts a government that promises transparency. You can’t claim moral superiority when you’re busy digging yourself out of a hole.

Meanwhile, President Biden said Thursday he “doesn’t regret” his handling of classified documents and “there’s nothing there.”

But just as Biden marveled at President Trump’s handling of classified documents last September, the American public is now asking the same question: “How could anyone be so irresponsible?”

And with House Republicans now pledging to investigate Biden, this slow trickle of negative news could erode his trustworthiness and credibility, and be really detrimental to the president, who may have fewer legislative accomplishments over the next two years due to the GOP majority will have in the lower chamber. This could certainly hurt Biden’s prospects if he decides to run for re-election.

How will this document saga affect Trump’s aspirations for 2024? You can bet his base here will continue to see him as a victim, but sensible Republicans have clear eyes about his baggage. Not to mention, other GOP contestants are expected to take the primary stage. Regardless of who his competitors end up being, Trump needs to lay his message of sacrifice as he campaigns in South Carolina next week and focus on issues relevant to voters like the economy or crime.

Ultimately, it is truly irresponsible that the government should continue to allow callous disregard for classified documents. As we await the Special Counsel’s investigation, it’s clear that the document retention system needs to be reformed.

Regardless of the political implications for 2024, it’s important to remember that these papers aren’t “cool souvenirs” or sports car manuals—they’re national security matters.

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