The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Classified documents show gap in how partisans criticize Trump, Biden

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden debate in November 2020 in Nashville. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The list of top U.S. government officials who have kept classified documents where they shouldn’t be now includes the last two presidents, their rivals for that office from the opposing party and the two previous vice presidents. The addition of former vice president Mike Pence to the list Tuesday reinforces that we have what appears to be a systemic problem.

As for how serious a problem it is and which cases are the most problematic — that assessment depends heavily on which party you come from. And the good news for Pence is that Republicans are far more selective in their objections and partisan about the matter than are Democrats.

After former president Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago was searched in August, congressional Republicans almost instantly circled the wagons. They attacked the search despite knowing very little about it and despite Trump’s demonstrated failure to return the documents when asked to over several months. And they have said relatively little about Trump’s underlying conduct.

Many top Democrats, by contrast, have actually ventured rather sharp criticisms of President Biden.

And that’s reflective of how the American people view these cases more broadly, with Republicans shrugging at the conduct of one of their own in a way Democrats don’t.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Democrats were about evenly split when it comes to whether Biden acted “appropriately” with regard to the documents; 41 percent said he did, and 38 percent said he didn’t. A majority (55 percent) called the situation at least “somewhat serious.”

But Republicans were far less likely to view Trump as having acted inappropriately or his situation being serious. The same poll in August showed 61 percent of the GOP said Trump had acted appropriately, while just 19 percent said he hadn’t. And just 27 percent regarded the situation as at least “somewhat serious” — about half the percentage of Democrats that say the same of Biden today.

That divide exists even though what’s known about the Trump case is pretty objectively more severe: Trump had many more known classified documents, he held on to them over a longer period even when the authorities came calling, and his lawyers asserted, to their knowledge, that all such documents had been returned. (The FBI search revealed that there were, indeed, more such documents at Mar-a-Lago.)

Biden’s team has been faulted, including by Democrats, for failing to more promptly and thoroughly disclose the existence of the documents, the first of which were discovered in early November but whose discovery was not publicly known for more than two months. But there is no evidence that Biden deliberately hid the documents from authorities or that they are as voluminous or as sensitive as the Trump documents.

(Some on the right have suggested that Biden tried to hide the matter from the Justice Department by first reporting the issue to the National Archives, which in turn notified DOJ. But it turns out Pence reportedly followed the same, logical process.)

Perhaps owing to those differences between the two situations, there is a gap in how independents view them. While they said by a 13-point margin that Trump should be prosecuted — 52-39 — they actually oppose charging Biden by five points, 39-44.

So why the partisan gap?

It bears emphasizing that while Republicans have objected to the Mar-a-Lago search, the Trump question in the poll didn’t involve the propriety of the search. It asked broadly about his handling of classified documents. So even if Republicans thought the Mar-a-Lago search was overzealous, that wouldn’t really apply to the question at hand.

It’s notable but not shocking that Republicans would rally to Trump’s cause here. Partisans are naturally more likely to give one of their own the benefit of the doubt, and the GOP’s partisans in particular have stuck with Trump through many other controversies.

But rarely do we have situations that are analogous enough to provide such a direct comparison of how much partisans on each side are doing sticking by their leaders. And this suggests Republicans are much more willing to do so, while Democrats take a more nuanced view of their party leaders’ missteps.

Either that or it suggests that many people simply don’t have an accurate sense of the details of each of the situations because of their media diet. Another recent poll, from Marquette University, asked people whether they believed Trump “had top secret and other classified material or national security documents at his home in Mar-a-Lago this summer.”

He, of course, did. But two-thirds of Republicans — 66 percent — said they believed he didn’t.