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Oh, Those Classified Documents!

Updated: Jan 30

Hall of Fame second baseman and manager Frankie Frisch (1898­–1973), "the Fordham Flash," hated it when his pitchers walked opposing hitters. Oh, those bases on balls! he would moan as manager of the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs back in the middle of the twentieth century. One can imagine White House chief of staff Ron Klain and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wandering the halls moaning, oh, those classified documents!


As I type documents with classified markings dating from his tenure as vice president have been found in one of President Biden's old private offices, his home library, and a garage at the bottom of his driveway. A far larger number of such documents was previously found at the former president's Mar-a-Lago palace. In recent days another small trove was discovered at the Indiana home of Mike Pence. Back in 2016 a boatload of classified email was found in Hillary Clinton's personal email account, which like a blockhead she used to conduct government business when she was secretary of state.


CNN reported that Bill Clinton's office said all classified material was properly turned over to the National Archives in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. Representatives of former presidents Obama and Bush the younger said that all classified and unclassified material from their administrations was turned over in the same manner. Representatives of the late Bush senior asserted that all classified material from his presidency was turned over. The National Archives is reportedly looking into contacting all living former presidents and vice presidents to ask them to review their records to ensure there are no classified materials flaating around.


The resident wits at WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME!, the weekly NPR news quiz, picked up the slack for CNN's failure to mention Jimmy Carter in the story, imagining a trove of documents accidentally put in the foundation of a Habitat for Humanity house.


As is the custom, White House messaging on the Biden documents falls well shy of optimal. The party line continues to be that there is no there there and it would be inappropriate to say more while the DOJ investigation is ongoing. Mum's the word on the investigation is the proper move, but that does not preclude acknowledgment that multiple cases where classified material was mishandled is cause for concern even when if it was all innocent as the driven snow.


Maybe high officials and their staffs have a somewhat cavalier attitude about pesky rules and regulations. Maybe procedures are not sufficiently rigorous. Maybe the volume of classified material is so immense that honest mistakes are bound to occur. Biden should be promising review, evaluation, and almost surely revision of protocols for classifying and handling sensitive material. It may be that the administration has this on the agenda to take up after the DOJ investigation is concluded. That should be the talking point.


William Saletan provided a nice summation of what is wrong with Biden's response to date and how the Biden case differs qualitatively, substantively, from Trump, as has been noticed by numerous observers who are not Republicans:


The "no 'there' there" defense doesn’t distinguish him from Trump. It makes the two cases look alike. It positions Biden, like Trump, as a denier of obvious reality. Biden shouldn’t have had classified records in his home, his garage, or other unauthorized locations. But he did.


The correct defense of Biden is that his infraction is different from Trump’s. What was “there” at Biden’s home was improperly stored classified material. What wasn’t there, as far as we know, was evidence of any effort to prevent classified material from being found and returned. The latter is what prompted the court-authorized FBI search of Mar-a-Lago: months of Trump’s attempts to obstruct recovery of documents he had wrongly retained.


Biden needs to stop pretending there’s nothing there. He needs to speak frankly about what is there. (no 'there' there")


References

Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley, Clinton’s Handling of Classified Information, FactCheck.org, July 7, 2016


Kevin Liptak, Jamie Gangel, Edward-Isaac Dovere, National Archives considering asking past presidents and vice presidents to look again for classified materials, CNN, January 25, 2023

William Saletan, Biden’s "No 'There' There" Defense Is Hogwash, The Bulwark, January 24, 2023


WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME!, NPR, January 14, 2023

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