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)
3 min

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.

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.

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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.

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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); 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; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).