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The story behind Trump’s and Fox News’s specious ‘What about Obama’ parallel

In 2016, President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump talk to members of the media in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On few previous occasions has the Trump movement so embraced Stephen K. Bannon’s strategy (paraphrased here) of flooding the zone with garbage as after the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago. Prominent Republicans and conservative pundits have pushed suggestions that President Biden himself ordered the search, that the FBI planted evidence, and posited all manner of other theories — all without even the slightest hints of evidence to back up these suggestions.

But when it comes to the sheer embrace of innuendo and a concerted lack of logical consistency, it’s difficult to top the latest entry. And it’s now led to a highly unusual rebuttal from the National Archives.

In recent days, Donald Trump and conservative media has debuted a new whataboutism defense: What about Obama?

Several Fox News shows on Wednesday picked up on a New York Post column that noted Barack Obama at the end of his presidency had 30 million records shipped to Chicago for his presidential library.

“They shipped 30 million pages of sensitive and possibly classified materials to Chicago, and, by the way, he has yet to return any of it to the National Archives. Not one page,” Fox host Sean Hannity intoned. “So is his house about to get raided?”

Former Trump campaign legal adviser Harmeet Dhillon added on Jesse Watters’s show: “Are there SWAT teams descending on Chicago to get those documents? No. And so the double standard and triple standard here is very apparent.”

Watters added: “Now, Obama has got boxes of stuff in Chicago. ... But Trump is not allowed to have a love letter from little rocket man [Kim Jong Un]?”

Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were also on the case, promoting the New York Post’s story on social media. And the elder Trump was at it again both Thursday and Friday, drawing a more direct comparison between his lot and what Obama supposedly did.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds superficially similar to someone with no base-level knowledge of how these processes work. They both have government documents! But it’s a ridiculous comparison wielded by people who in many cases probably know better.

The first thing to note is that the New York Post’s piece — an opinion column — doesn’t connect the dots and draw a parallel between Trump and Obama in the same way these pundits were so eager to do. It merely casts the Trump search as spotlighting alleged problems with the Presidential Records Act — the law at issue when it comes to documents Trump might have illegally stashed at Mar-a-Lago. It notes the Obama administration records that were shipped to Chicago have yet to be made available in digital form.

As with many issues of government transparency and document-sharing, it’s true that this is not great! You often have to wait years for requested documents, and this appears to be no exception. There was also plenty of criticism of the decision to break with precedent and digitize the documents, rather than house them physically in a traditional library.

But that doesn’t mean it bears any resemblance to what prompted the Trump search. As was reported back in late 2016, the Obama team was transferring the records to Chicago through the National Archives, which legally owns the documents once a president leaves office. Once the documents ultimately reached a warehouse in Chicago, the Obama Foundation was then due to pay the National Archives and Record Administration to digitize the documents. The lengthiness of that process aside, there isn’t the faintest hint of legal violations — nor does the New York Post’s story suggest as much.

The faintest hint of evidence, of course, is currently surplus to requirements on many portions of the right. Hannity stated conspiratorially that “they shipped 30 million pages of sensitive and possibly classified materials to Chicago,” without noting that the “they” included the National Archives.

The implication is that perhaps Obama, too, is surreptitiously obscuring his sensitive documents — but without being searched. But there’s no evidence he has hidden anything from the Archives or that he didn’t go through the processes required to share and protect those documents once they leave Washington.

And on Friday, after Trump raised the issue again, the Archives sought to put an end to the charade. It issued a statement outlining these facts and assuring that it has custody of classified documents:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA). NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, DC, area. As required by the PRA, former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration.

In other words, there’s no parallel.

In another unorthodox statement earlier this year, the Archives said on the record that it previously retrieved 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago that should have been turned over to it, and The Washington Post has reported that some of those documents were labeled classified and even “top secret.” The search this week was geared toward other documents that should have been turned over but which the government believed to still be in Trump’s possession. There is a difference between having government documents and having government documents that you for some reason didn’t disclose to the Archives and/or perhaps aren’t sufficiently protecting.

There is actual evidence for a former president doing the latter. With the caveat that we still don’t know much about the evidence presented to obtain the search warrant, that’s the blindingly obvious reason that one ex-president was searched while the other wasn’t.

This post has been updated.

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