Why Those Documents at Mike Pence’s Place Should Be Bad for Trump

Having “classified” materials is not the main problem.

Documents with classified markings were discovered last week in the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence, seen here in November.John Minchillo/AP

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Has the FBI checked Dick Cheney’s house?

On Tuesday, a lawyer for former Vice President Mike Pence announced that classified documents at Pence’s Indiana home had been recently found. The news offers a chance to pause for a moment and consider just how far off the rails the general discourse about former officials’ possession of government materials has gone. 

In December, lawyers for President Joe Biden found classified documents stored at his Wilmington, Delaware home. That followed the discovery in November of classified material at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank where Biden stored papers. In August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Mar-a-Lago for documents held by former President Donald Trump.

There is an easy equivalency here. And as more politicians’ lawyers root around their homes for documents, more disclosures may follow, only fueling claims that Trump was not alone in hanging onto classified material. But there is a big distinction: Pence and Biden say they inadvertently kept some documents marked classified. Trump deliberately evaded extensive federal efforts to get him to return government property that he took. 

The primary problem with the material Trump held was not that some of it was “classified.” The problem was the documents weren’t his. Trump allegedly stole government property—if not when he decamped Washington, then at least when he refused to comply with requests by the National Archives and the Justice Department to return it, as the Department of Justice has detailed.

The Trump scandal is not about over-classification: It’s about a former president still acting like he is above the law, and correctly expecting partisans to help him get away with it.

Pence’s discovery was reported the same day that federal prosecutors trying five Proud Boys for seditious conspiracy announced they had found that a witness in the case—also a member of the neo-facist organization—possessed a document with classification markings on it. The Justice Department prosecutors said that the document was available online but had not received an answer from the intelligence community about whether the document remains classified.

That a random Proud Boy and Mike Pence were revealed on the same day to possess classified material is a pretty good indication that too much stuff is classified. It is also a reminder that “classified,” like “weapons of mass destruction,” is not a particularly meaningful term. An innocuous email that a federal bureaucrat hasn’t gotten around to declassifying can be “classified.” Super-secret material on intelligence gathering aimed at China can also be “classified.”

Pence, who has repeatedly denied possessing classified documents, appears guilty of hypocrisy and sloppiness. Ditto Biden, who called Trump hanging onto material “irresponsible.” But both former VPs admitted to having material and then agreed to give it back. Trump refused to return documents, and lied about having them, until the FBI had to execute a search warrant to seize them.

After the FBI’s August search, they said they had found documents with markings indicating they were only supposed to be stored in a secure government facility. The documents also reportedly included material related to nuclear weapons and highly sensitive material related to Iran and China. 

These findings caused much coverage of the issue to focus, with reason, on the national security risk created by Trump storing material in a nonsecure closet and, reportedly, in his desk. Online speculation also veered, with less support, toward whether Trump held onto the material to give it, or even sell it, to Saudi Arabia. That combination of real reporting and dicey speculation left many Americans with the impression that the national security risk Trump created—not his apparently willful violation of straightforward laws—was the main problem with the hoarding.

In the wake of such concerns, right-wing commentators have argued that Biden’s possession of classified material also created a national security risk. This speculation has occurred even without evidence that Biden had particularly sensitive material.

In recent days, on the right, such conjecture has fused with the GOP’s interest in Hunter Biden’s past work overseas. It has veered toward inanity. A breathless report showed that (shock) Hunter Biden had been photographed at his own father’s home. This was followed by a freakout over a Daily Mail article that claimed boxes of Biden’s classified material were once stored in an office in Washington D.C.’s  “Chinatown.” Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo and Trump himself seized on the detail—along with the fact that an aide involved with overseeing the shipping of the boxes has an Asian surname. They made racist leaps, suggesting Biden might have allowed China’s government to steal state secrets. Bartiromo said she did not know if the aide “was ultimately reporting back to the Chinese Communist Party.”  House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) appeared on Bartiromo’s show and did not dispute her insinuations. “This has gone from being irresponsible to downright scary,” Comer said.

Previously, Comer has argued his investigation of Hunter Biden is an earnest oversight effort. Yet, here it is, the kind of bad-faith bullshit that no one is required to take seriously. Proximity to dim sum is not a national security risk.

Trump and his enablers would have made silly arguments regardless. But the treatment of his own document hoarding as primarily a national security matter among many commenters helped deepen the stupidity of the current discourse. Here is the real gist: Neither President Joe Biden nor former Vice President Mike Pence has claimed that they own documents they received as part of their public service. They say they have documents that are classified accidentally. Trump, according to the New York Times, told associates about his documents held at Mar-a-Lago: “They’re mine.”

This is sort of like Trump’s treating the Attorney General as his personal lawyer or attempting while no longer president to assert “executive privilege” in order to refuse to return material to the current executive branch. Laws don’t apply equally to him, he says. And he keeps finding stooges to agree.

The Mar-a-Lago scandal has little to do with Biden or Pence or even national security. It’s about whether Trump will keep getting away with doing whatever he wants.


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