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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Andrew Harnik President Joe Biden responds to a reporter's question after speaking about the economy in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Thursday.

Larry Donnelly Biden's classified documents problem is an embarrassing political setback

Our columnist looks at the political hot water the US president has found himself in this week.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 13th 2023, 10:30 PM

IT WAS ALL going so well for President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party.

Against the odds, Democrats had a solid performance, by historic measurements, in the midterm elections in November. The grubby 15 round battle that transpired before California Congressman Kevin McCarthy was finally elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives on 7 January went down like a lead balloon with the American people.

In a CBS News/YouGov poll, 55% of respondents said that they did not approve of the protracted process, one that is typically ceremonial in nature. A mere 14% have a favourable opinion of McCarthy, who has lusted after his new job forever and, as his substantial concessions to the far right Freedom Caucus demonstrate, was willing to do nearly anything to get it.

Political gridlock

Most damningly, as we face a 118th Congress that seems destined to be dominated by investigations, gridlock and periodic government shutdowns at the behest of radicals, such as Congressman Matt Gaetz and Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, 70% of those asked want House Republicans to prioritise working with President Biden and their colleagues across the aisle to address the myriad challenges the country must deal with.

So long as the Democrats could maintain a reasonably united front, the next two years and, indeed, the 2024 elections appeared promising. In this vein, it is worth noting the strong impression that their new leader in the House, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, has made already.

Then along came the news that classified documents were discovered in an office Joe Biden had been using as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the period between his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president and his commencing a 2020 campaign for the White House.

The 10 or so documents, reported to include national security memos relating to Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, were found days prior to the midterm elections. Further classified documents, which were kept at President Biden’s home in Delaware, were subsequently uncovered.

Once they had sight of the classified documents, the president’s lawyers immediately notified the National Archives and surrendered them. Questions will continue to be raised, however, as to why this information wasn’t revealed before 6 November when voters cast their ballots. A conclusion that there was a political motivation behind the delay will be drawn by many, and not unreasonably.

Nonetheless, the fact that Biden’s team was so forthcoming and that the number of classified documents is fairly paltry has been to the fore in the defences mounted by the president’s allies. His predecessor as commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, brought boxes upon boxes of classified documents to Mar-a-Lago. His aides refused to cooperate with the National Archives when they sought missing documents. And the FBI ultimately had to raid the Florida compound to obtain them.

Accordingly, a Washington Post headline – “The Trump and Biden classified-document revelations are not the same” – is spot on. The “apples and oranges” moniker used by several left-leaning journalists is equally valid. At least at this juncture, based on what is in the public domain, there is no comparison.

The damage done

But here’s the uncomfortable political truth. It matters little.

First, many Americans won’t read or listen past the first sentence of the story. They will see that President Biden, just like the man he succeeded, held onto classified documents and glumly repeat the mantra that “they’re all the same.” Second, whether his foes can stomach it or not, Donald Trump plays the game by different rules from everybody else. His ardent supporters and, more importantly, those who don’t respect him, yet are angry enough at “the system” that they could still vote for him next year, don’t really care what he does.

President Biden, consciously or subconsciously, is held to a higher standard.

And here is what he has said in the wake of Trump’s hoarding of classified documents in Mar-a-Lago. “How could that happen? How could anyone be that irresponsible? What data may be in there that may compromise sources and methods?”

His posing these queries was entirely appropriate. The special counsel Attorney General Merrick Garland selected to get to the truth of Trump’s classified documents, Jack Smith, is on that case. Garland has now chosen another special counsel, Robert Hur, to do likewise with respect to Biden’s classified document. In Hur’s probe, the issue of intent will be especially interesting. Was, as Democrats have implied, this a case of benign inadvertence or neglect – or is there more to it?

Of course, the president’s conservative critics have reacted with glee, despite the apparent gulf between the alleged misconduct of the two administrations. They have a singular unassailable point, though, as Daniel Flynn writes in the American Spectator: “Donald Trump’s greatest antagonist on mishandling classified documents himself mishandled classified documents.”

Not an awful lot is known about Biden’s classified documents. We await more details. The president has stated that he was “surprised to learn” of their existence, promised to cooperate fully and indicated that he wants to say more when it is suitable to do so. Republicans on Capitol Hill will dig in.

It is impossible to discern at the moment if this is a mountain or mole hill. My guess is that it will eventually prove to be closer to the latter. But one thing is certain. After a good start to 2023, this is a totally unforeseen and potentially significant setback for President Biden and the Democrats. The words attributed to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spring to mind: “Events, my dear boy, events.”

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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