The Plot Thickens

[ Posted Tuesday, January 24th, 2023 – 16:35 UTC ]

This is all what should have happened last August. Also, at this point it's hard not to think: "Who's next? Jimmy Carter? Dan Quayle?" In fact, it's hard for me not to picture in my head right now the image of Attorney General Merrick Garland standing on a stage behind Oprah Winfrey, who is yelling into her microphone: "You get a special counsel... and you get a special counsel!... and YOU get a special counsel!!!"

This was my initial (and admittedly, rather giddy) reaction when the news broke that Mike Pence also had some classified documents in his possession, long after he should have turned them over to the National Archives. This complicates an already-complicated storyline, since Pence is now the third ex-president or ex-vice-president to have seemingly walked off with classified documents stuffed in a box with all the other papers they took with them when leaving office. And then nobody ever looked in the boxes until now -- at least in the cases of former Vice President Mike Pence and current President (but former Vice President and Senator, from when the documents were reportedly dated) Joe Biden. In the case of former President Donald Trump, the boxes at least should have been looked into, since he had already received and answered a subpoena for all documents marked classified.

That's not the only difference between Trump and the cases of Pence and Biden, of course. Pence and Biden both acted voluntarily, as the law demands. Trump not only didn't, he fought every step of the way, he forced the Justice Department to subpoena the documents' return, and then he lied that they all had been returned when they hadn't. This is what prompted a search warrant and seizure of over 100 more classified documents. And Trump wasn't just fighting to keep hold of these classified documents, please remember, he was also fighting to hang onto thousands of other documents that were not classified, yet still remain the rightful property of the American people.

The news about Pence, obviously, is good news for both Biden and for people who have to make the case why the Biden (and, now, Pence) situations are vastly different than Trump's. Pence and Biden both followed the law and immediately returned anything that was found. Trump did the opposite. That's pretty easy to understand, and assumably Pence entering the fray will damp down all the frenzy from Republican House members who are salivating over investigating Biden's paperwork. They were quite prepared to fully ignore Trump's situation, but with Pence added into the mix that becomes politically impossible -- realistically, they could either investigate all three or none of them, because to do so otherwise would be so nakedly partisan.

This still leaves the question of why all of this of this didn't happen last August, however. Immediately after the search warrant was executed at Trump's Florida golf resort, why didn't everyone else still active in politics search their own paperwork? Why didn't they all -- personally, or through a lawyer with the proper classification clearance -- immediately initiate a thorough and exhaustive search of any and all paperwork which might have left with them when they left office? All of this -- for any politician who has ever had access to classified material, but most definitely for presidents and vice presidents -- should have happened in a matter of weeks after the Trump search warrant news broke. But, quite obviously, it didn't.

Biden was first out of the gate in terms of documents coming to light, but not by his own action. The institute he set up after leaving the vice presidency was moving and came across some boxes, assumably in some dusty storeroom. They found some classified documents in them, in early November. Biden took a rather lackadaisical attitude towards this news, instead of immediately ordering a sweep of all his own paperwork -- all those boxes stored in his houses. And even though they found some more when they eventually did this in December, they didn't find them all. We're still getting drip-drip-drip updates. This is inexcusable.

Pence acted last, and didn't search his own paperwork until the Biden news broke at the start of this month. Which is equally inexcusable. I mean, these are intelligent men and professional politicians who somehow failed to stop for one minute and think: "Since Trump was caught so red-handed, I better make damn sure my own hands are squeaky-clean."

The Justice Department needs to handle the Pence case exactly as it handled the Biden case. An investigator -- perhaps exactly the same one used for Biden, for fairness -- should be assigned to look into what happened, what classified documents were involved, how were they handled, what procedures were not followed correctly, who had access, and all of the other questions surrounding the discovery of classified documents in the possession of a private citizen (Pence, currently, and Biden, for the four years when he was out of office). Were any laws broken, and who broke them? Was there bad intent or was it all just filing errors and mishandling? An intelligence assessment should also be done for Pence to rate the risk of any of the information actually being leaked -- as was done for both Biden and Trump.

When the Justice Department investigator ends his investigation into Pence, he or she should recommend to Attorney General Merrick Garland whether a special counsel appointment would be justified on not. Then Garland should announce this publicly, whether he makes such an appointment or not. This is important especially if no special counsel is deemed necessary for Pence.

If that is the case (and it is impossible to know this now, this is pure speculation), then assumably Pence's transgression either wasn't as serious as Biden's (to say nothing of Trump's -- he's in a whole different category of transgressing) because: (1) the classified information in Pence's paperwork was marked at a lot lower level of classification than that of Biden, or (2) Pence's case was more straightforward in how many people had ever accessed the boxes or even had access to the building they were in. There may be other national security considerations, but those seem to be the most obvious from a layman's view.

If Pence is let off with a slap on the wrist, then Biden's case may not look as good as it does right now. Mike Pence, however, isn't just some random ex-V.P., he is also seriously eyeing a run at the Oval Office himself. The politics are obviously a wee bit more fraught than if Jimmy Carter or Dan Quayle suddenly made an admission that they also had classified documents they had belatedly handed over.

The best thing the American public can hope for, at this point, is a swift special counsel process, no matter how many of them there turn out to be. Donald Trump has already announced his 2024 candidacy. Joe Biden is reportedly on the brink of his own announcement, and Mike Pence is gripping his own hat in readiness to throw it into the presidential ring. All the special counsels need to report back (in Trump's case, you have to add "just on the documents case," since his special counsel is also looking into other crimes Trump may have committed as well) as soon as is humanly possible. Because this information -- in all three cases -- needs to be out in front of the American people not only long before next year's election, but also long before the primaries even start. This is vital information the electorate requires, which is going to mean these special prosecutors are going to have to move a lot quicker than is normally the case.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “The Plot Thickens”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I would be very surprised if there is an ex-president/vice president/other high public office holder or presidential library/think tank/other office that has no classified documents kicking around.

    Now, anyone here think Trump will be charged with obstruction regarding his handling of classified documents? So far, he is the only one in this current mess - Clinton, Trump, Biden, Pence - who actually had the authority to declassify these types of documents, so ...

  2. [2] 
    Bleyd wrote:

    I wonder if all of this is going to end up with a new set of standards for cataloguing any documents being taken by outgoing executives in order to ensure that they don't (mistakenly or otherwise) leave office with classified materials in their possession. It's looking more and more like there needs to be more oversight on that sort of thing.

  3. [3] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    It is essential that a qualified group looks into how documents are handled and in particular, how their return (or not) is recorded. By qualified, I mean people like archivists with experience of handling and managing large numbers of documents. And their professional recommendations should be acted on.

    Another issue is whether too many documents are routinely marked 'classified' whether they really contain national security issues or not. That might be more difficult to judge and contain.

    I hope any document-handling work would disappear into the quiet workings of a non-political group until they have results, but I fear the issue may just remain a political football for the next two years.

  4. [4] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Back when Republicans were losing their collective minds over Hillary’s email server, I had a friend who retired from the State Department explain how ridiculous the government’s classification of documents is in reality. Every intelligence agency has it’s own specific classification system that is separate from any other agency’s classification system. That means that a single group email sent to members of each agency could have differing classifications ranging from the highest “eyes only” security to not being considered classified depending on which agency you ask. And then there are military documents that have a separate classification system all together. I asked my friend about retroactively classified documents, and he just laughed and said, “Those are crazy, but not as crazy as someone who has no government clearance unwittingly writing a letter that contains info that one agency deems to be critical to national security being arrested for sending the letter.” If your aunt who moved to Russia sends you photos from her vacation there, don’t share them on Facebook is the lesson he was trying to convey, apparently.

    But as ridiculous as having every agency using their own classification system seems, he said that it does serve a purpose. When you have spies working in foreign countries, you want to limit the number of people who know who those spies are to as few as possible. That’s why an email sharing a recipe that Aunt Helga sent you from one of the “-istan” countries won’t mean anything to the FBI or the military, but will have folks over at the State Department going into cardiac arrest.

    “Bottom line”, my friend said, “yes, the classification systems in our government are giant clusterducks… and everyone is well aware of that. But in many ways, that is their saving Grace… it allows us to protect our people as best as we possibly can.”

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