It does not matter whether the U.S. government is overly enthusiastic about classifying documents, which is almost certainly true. Having or storing a classified document in an insecure area is still something that should certainly be avoided and potentially be sanctioned.
Whether the documents found at Trump’s property at Mar-a-Lago had been declassified — either through official processes, informal ones or through the sheer power of Trump’s mind — uniquely doesn’t matter. He and his allies have been breathless in asserting Trump was allowed to retain the documents recovered at Mar-a-Lago because he had blanket declassification authority. But that doesn’t address the other concerns: that he was in possession of presidential records being demanded by the National Archives or that he failed to comply with a subpoena for documents with classification markings — importantly, not simply classified documents.
Even before the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and seized more than 100 documents with classification markings, Trump and his allies were arguing he had the right to have those marked documents in his possession. When it was discovered President Biden had similarly marked documents at a think tank office he’d used and his private home, Trumpworld pivoted to the attack: Not only did Biden’s document possession functionally neutralize Trump’s possession, Biden’s situation was worse because [waving hands] Hunter Biden.
The neutralization effort, at the very least, seems to be working. Polling released by NBC News over the weekend shows that similar percentages of Americans view the Biden and Trump situations as concerning. About two-thirds of respondents said that, based on what they know, it was “very” or “somewhat” concerning that “classified government documents that should not have been there” were found at the Biden and Trump homes. Among members of each president’s party, about half held such a position.
Notice how that question itself advantages Trump’s efforts at equivalence. We don’t know which documents in the possession of either man were classified; again, classification markings do not necessarily indicate current classification status. (The Justice Department is reviewing the documents, presumably with this idea in mind.) Therefore, we don’t know whether the documents “should not have been there” — except that one president, Trump, had been asked for the records more than once and had failed to comply to a federal subpoena, despite his attorney signing a statement that he’d complied.
This illustration, created last week after documents were found at the home of former vice president Mike Pence, shows the comparative timeline between the three men.
The timeline there is compressed, but you can see at a glance how long it took to retrieve the documents from Trump and how many he retained. By contrast, there is no indication Biden or Pence delayed at all in turning over what they had in their possession to the government.
This is admittedly nuanced but not incomprehensibly so. That the public equates the Trump and Biden situations in polling depends to some extent on being offered a poll question that functionally equates them. It also depends on the prevalence of a misleading narrative from people deliberately or unhelpfully eliding the nuance. One storyline in the media has centered on the likelihood that voters will equate the two situations, an odd abdication of the need to ensure that the public is accurately informed.
Again, Trump’s allies are pushing past this equivalence to present Biden as a uniquely bad actor. In an interview on CNN Sunday evening, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) insisted that Biden and Biden alone demanded scrutiny for possession of documents.
“We have a strong suspicion that people around Joe Biden, mainly in his family, have been peddling access to the Biden family with our adversaries around the world,” Comer said. “And when we find out that they have multiple classified documents scattered throughout multiple residences and office buildings across the East Coast, then this raises a huge red flag for us. We want to make sure that those documents in the possession of Joe Biden weren’t somehow sent to our adversaries and didn’t somehow compromise our national security.”
Setting aside the apocalyptic framing (there were a small number of documents in an office and a small number at Biden’s home), you can see how Comer tries to fold this into the long-standing Republican effort to cast Biden as profiting from foreign contacts.
CNN’s Pamela Brown, of course, very quickly noted that similar, better-grounded questions surround Trump and his family. When it comes to Trump, she said, “why don’t you have that same concern?”
“If someone can show me evidence that there was influence peddling with those classified documents that were in the possession of President Trump,” Comer replied, “then we would certainly expand it.”
Students of first-year logic know what question Brown asked next: Do you have evidence in regards to Biden? Comer’s response was that they were “looking into it.”
It’s no surprise members of Trump’s party would seek to wave away his problems while creating new ones for Biden. One would hope, though, that an elected official tasked with leading oversight of the government might at least pay lip service toward accurately recognizing the distinctions between the Biden and Trump situations.
Comer and his allies argue that a small number of documents found in Biden’s garage — documents with unknown contents and unknown classification status, documents he credibly asserts he didn’t know he had and that were turned over to the government — somehow tie into their otherwise unproven theories about Biden’s ties to foreign governments.
For Trump, however? A man who has demonstrated ties to any number of foreign business interests and leaders, someone who misled the government about the documents in his possession and who had a number of documents with the strictest classification markings stored in a box in the personal office constructed for him after he left office? This doesn’t strike Comer as worrisome.
The situations are not the same. The situations are not the same in the context of possession of marked documents; the situations are not the same in the context of concerns about either man somehow putting the documents to use. But Americans, asked whether they see the documents as the same, suggest that they do. And that, too, matters.