Even by Washington standards, all the fake posturing and hypocrisy over the Trump/Biden classified documents scandals is reaching new heights. The Donald Trump era, which we are still in by many measures, has shattered many norms. Some of it has been healthy. A lot has not. The vigor by which the left and some of the establishment right has gone after Trump has certainly shattered many norms that the country will regret.
The presidency is important. The system is based on respecting that office even when you don’t like the occupant. From the phony Russia collusion story all the way through the overhyped classified document scandal, many of Trump’s opponents unfairly attacked not only Trump but the office of the presidency itself. That’s playing out today with the classified documents scandals. Trump certainly should not have had classified documents in his Florida compound, but the FBI mob-style raid and the overwrought reaction by many commentators, including President Joe Biden, was truly unhinged. Now, facing a similar circumstance, the whole thing is coming back to bite Biden. Norms were shattered, and now the country, including the current president, will live with the consequences.
The first thing to understand about classified documents is there are just way too many of them. Former Pentagon special counsel and Yale law professor Oona Hathaway told NPR: “There’s somewhere in the order of over 50 million documents classified every year. We don’t know the exact number because even the government can’t keep track of it all.” The government office in charge of protecting national security information confirmed in a 2021 report that it cannot keep up with the numbers and count how many documents are now classified.
It’s of course important to protect certain national security information from America’s enemies. Obvious examples like the technical details of high-tech weapons systems or the identities of American spies must be protected to the maximum extent possible. Anyone remotely familiar with the current system knows it has grown from this important national interest into something wholly different. Way too much information is classified. This is important because classification runs directly contrary to another important government priority: transparency. The American people have a right to know how their government operates. Classification can be used to hide all sorts of information. At a time when the decline of trust in national institutions has plummeted to record lows, this is not a trivial matter. Transparency builds trust.
The second important point missing from the overhyped classified documents scandal is the unique role of the president and the vice president in our system of government. The president is not a king. He’s not above the law. But the president and the vice president are the only two elected officials in the executive branch of government. They have extraordinary power in the American system. The entire classified document regime flows from that power. They can classify and declassify information on their own with no review or interference from any bureaucrat. They should be able to do that. Nobody else in the executive branch of government is directly accountable to the American people.
Given the endemic overclassification of documents, the president and vice president are drowning in classified materials. As the person in charge of papers for the vice president for four years, I have seen firsthand the sheer overwhelming volume at issue. Everything these days is classified. Most of it is boring and its release would not endanger anything. This does not relieve a president from protecting the materials, but any honest or fair review of what’s really going on has to take into account the broader context of the office.
Trump should not have had boxes of classified materials in his office, but any remotely fair observer knows that the overdone reaction was political. Trump is a danger to the country who must be destroyed; that’s the mindset of many of his biggest detractors. Once you have this mindset, the methods become less important. We still don’t know the official details of exactly what Trump had, including whether they were declassified in any way under the president’s authority to do that. Damning information has flowed to the public from unauthorized leaks by government investigators, but if the past is any guide, those can’t be relied on as hard facts. Given this, it’s fair to say the FBI raid was overdone. The precedent of that sort of action against a former president of the United States is flat-out dangerous to the office itself. Biden, the current holder of that office, knows this, but he went along anyway.
By going along with the overheated Trump document scandal, Biden got himself a political issue that no doubt helped in the midterm elections. He’s now paying the price. Biden should certainly not have had classified materials in his garage or at his think tank. Waiting to disclose that fact until after the midterm elections and even after the important follow-on Georgia Senate election was possibly the biggest abuse of all. Like Trump, though, Biden’s actual possession of the documents is more of an administrative slap on the wrist violation and less of a national scandal. Hillary Clinton’s violation, involving classified materials placed on unclassified computers tied to the public internet, was much more egregious than anything Trump or Biden have been accused of, and even then, there was no criminal sanction. Yet Biden played along with the unfair treatment of Trump. After pretending the Trump scandal was more than it was, Biden and his allies are now hamstrung coming out and explaining this reality. “What goes around comes around” will be fun for Biden’s opponents, but none of this is good for America, and it’s certainly not good for the office of the president.
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