The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Damning new Pence leaks reveal a big truth about Trump — and the GOP

Former vice president Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Throughout the sordid saga of Donald Trump’s post-presidency, Mike Pence has shown Republicans another way. By defending his refusal to subvert the 2020 election results, Pence has illustrated — in the face of Trump’s fury — that you can prioritize constitutional governance above loyalty to Trump and still call yourself a Republican.

Something similar may be unfolding with the scandal surrounding government documents that Trump improperly — and possibly illegally — had at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where federal agents searched the premises last week.

Pence allies are now quietly drawing attention to sharp differences in how the men handled their documents as Trump’s presidency ended. Sources tell the New York Times that Pence aides scrupulously followed protocol in organizing his government papers — a contrast obviously intended to reflect badly on Trump.

This disparity captures something essential about this situation. Pence is demonstrating that Republicans should want to handle documents responsibly, that maybe Trump’s conduct in this regard might have been — gasp! — less than perfect. That’s not a position many Republicans dare to articulate.

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The Times quotes numerous sources blaming Mark Meadows for failing to oversee the handling of Trump’s documents, effectively throwing the former White House chief of staff under the bus. The Times then adds this contrast with Pence:

As Mr. Trump sought to hold on to power, two of Mr. Pence’s senior aides — Marc Short, his chief of staff, and Greg Jacob, his counsel — indexed and boxed all of his government papers, according to three former officials with knowledge of the work.
Mr. Jacob spent the bulk of his final few days in government preparing the final boxes, with the goal of ensuring that Mr. Pence left office without a single paper that did not belong to him, one of the officials said.

It’s hard to imagine these points being made without at least tacit awareness on Pence’s part. So after Trump’s endless abuse, Pence allies might be slipping in the shiv at a vulnerable moment. (Also recall that Jacob revealed damning details to the Jan. 6 select committee about Trump’s pressure on Pence to steal the election.)

That also demonstrates how deranged the position of Republicans defending Trump has become.

Many Republicans refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of a scintilla of wrongdoing by Trump. For them, the only acceptable line can be that law enforcement officials are uniformly persecuting him.

Allowing that law enforcement officials might have understandable motives in executing the search, that they might have demonstrated probable cause to a judge, that Trump might have committed some misconduct — even in a situation that remains largely shrouded from public view — is unthinkable.

Pence’s allies are showing that some Republicans saw a better way. In contrast to Trump, Pence’s conduct was informed by an understanding that government documents belong to the public, not to the man temporarily inhabiting the office at the voters’ pleasure. In this light, lock-step GOP defenses of Trump seem even more ridiculous.

After all, the known facts already indicate the likelihood of wrongdoing by Trump, even if many of his defenders won’t open the door to mere consideration of this prospect.

In an interview, government secrecy expert Steven Aftergood put this in perspective. As he noted, the fact that the inventory of the search illustrates the retrieval of numerous highly sensitive documents itself demonstrates that law enforcement probably had good reason for the search.

In other words, the search did find that many documents containing highly classified secrets were in Trump’s possession. As Aftergood told me, the search “seems to have been well founded, based on the results.”

None of this means Trump will be charged with crimes. The search warrant declares an interest in the potential violation of three statutes concerning treatment of government information, including doing harm to national security. But we don’t yet know if Trump violated any of those laws.

We do know, however, that Trump had extremely sensitive information at his Florida resort. As another expert puts it, “you can’t just take it with you.”

We also know that in revealing this, the search bore fruit.

To be fair, it’s still possible that the search will, in hindsight, appear as overreach. As former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith argues, to determine this, we need to know how sensitive the classified info really is, what Trump and his associates did with it, and why law enforcement thought the situation was alarming enough to necessitate the search, among other things.

There is a reasonable stance Republicans could take in all this. They could maintain that the search of a former president’s home has shocked millions and that congressional oversight must ensure that law enforcement — which has a long history in this country of abusive political targeting — is acting in an aboveboard manner.

They could say this without stating as fact that the search can only represent jackbooted tyranny to its core, while acknowledging that the jury is out on the search’s validity. Indeed, a few Republicans have adopted something like this position.

But that’s not what Trump’s defenders are saying. Instead, they suggest there is no chance whatsoever that Trump did anything remotely wrong, or that law enforcement did anything remotely right — or even understandable under the circumstances.

This is being widely treated as Republicans being Republicans. Yet it’s a ludicrous position. The leaks from people around Pence make it look still more absurd, even pathologically so.


An earlier version of this column misidentified Jack Goldsmith’s role in the George W. Bush administration. He was an assistant attorney general, not White House counsel. The version has been updated.