The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Regrets over mishandling classified material? Biden should have a few.

President Biden outside the White House on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden said last Thursday that he has “no regrets” about his response to the discovery of mishandled classified information. “There’s no ‘there’ there,” he said. The next day, FBI agents searched his private home in Wilmington, Del., for 13 hours and retrieved six additional items, dating to his time in the Senate and as vice president. This was at least the fifth tranche of classified material discovered since November in unsecured places that have ranged from the Delaware garage where the president parks his Corvette to the Washington think tank where he kept an office during his interregnum between the Obama administration and his own.

So, Mr. Biden should be feeling at least some regret. At a minimum, he and those around him were sloppy with the handling and storage of sensitive materials, and set a poor example for civil servants entrusted with clearances. His team could have been clearer much earlier about how much of that material had been found. His defensiveness has chipped away at the credibility of his claim that “people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously.”

Though comparisons are inevitable, there are significant differences between what is known about Mr. Biden’s actions in this situation and what he called his predecessor Donald Trump’s “totally irresponsible” behavior with regard to keeping top-secret documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate. The current president deserves credit for cooperating with the Justice Department inquiry and giving the FBI free rein to search his home. Mr. Trump vigorously fought federal efforts to retrieve documents that didn’t belong to him. In another contrast with the former president, Mr. Biden is showing respect for the independence of the department that reports to him.

Jennifer Rubin: Two things can be true: Biden broke no laws. His lawyers made a mess.

Eugene Robinson

counterpointHere are the Biden document questions we need answered

But there is also much we still don’t know in Mr. Biden’s case, including the specific nature of the documents and whether anyone else accessed them. Was the president merely careless or could the disclosure of what was in his possession plausibly jeopardize national security? So far, there is no evidence of intentional wrongdoing.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Also on the Editorial Board’s agenda
  • The world’s ice is melting quickly.
  • The Taliban rolls back women’s rights.
  • Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is at it again.
  • Hong Kong’s crackdown on free speech continues.
A new study finds that half the world’s mountain glaciers and ice caps will melt even if global warming is restrained to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which it won’t be. This would feed sea-level rise and imperil water sources for hundreds of millions. Read a recent editorial on how to cope with rising seas, and another on the policies needed to fight climate change.
The Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan last year promising to be different from when they ruled the country before 2001. This pledge has gone up in smoke. The Taliban banned women from attending universities, effective immediately. Earlier the Taliban banned girls from middle and high school, restricted them from jobs, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Read recent editorials on women’s rights in Afghanistan.
A court in mid-December sentenced Istanbul’s popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a political rival of the president, to more than two years in prison on the charge of “insulting public figures.” If confirmed on appeal, his conviction would bar Mr. Imamoglu from seeking public office. Mr. Erdogan has a long history of suppressing critics and competition. Read our recent editorial.
A Hong Kong judge sentenced Jimmy Lai, a media magnate known for publishing a defiantly independent newspaper, to almost six years in prison. His trial for violating Hong Kong’s repressive national security law, charges for which he could face life in prison, has been postponed until next year. Read our most recent editorial on the case.


End of carousel

This Editorial Board expressed dismay about the degree to which Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information factored into the 2016 election. More recently, we’ve questioned whether the appointment of a special counsel was warranted in the Biden case, even for the sake of consistency with the Trump one. We’ve highlighted the long-standing need to repair the antiquated and overwhelmed classification system.

But none of that lets Mr. Biden off the hook. It is important that authority figures try to follow the rules and own up to their mistakes when they make them. Justice Department guidelines mean that no sitting president will be indicted. But maximum allowable transparency is vital. Mr. Biden needs to ditch the defensiveness. Acknowledging that he has grounds for regret would be a good start.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).