In 2020, America elected Joe Biden to be not-Trump—a role for which he seemed well-suited. In 2016, the country voted for burn-it-all-down upheaval. Trump was the tribune of those who felt betrayed and misled and mistreated. Four chaotic years later, alarmed voters fled into the arms of an aging former vice-president and senator—a man they had twice rejected as a presidential contender—who seemed the personification of the steady hand.
No one expected Biden to be transformational or extraordinary, but we did need him to be the anti-Trump in the most important ways. We needed him to be sober and responsible, to play by the rules, and to uphold the primacy of law and procedure. And he delivered. President Biden freed the country and the world from the tyranny of tweeted insults, conspiracies, threats, lies, fantasies, and reversals. And while naturally some will criticize his policies, Biden has conducted the presidency with dignity. He has gone some way toward restoring a sense that the system, whatever its flaws, is basically sound.
But the revelation that, like Trump, Biden mishandled classified documents, including storing them in his garage next to his Corvette, drags us back to precisely the world in which Trump is most comfortable. Like all reprobates, Trump’s default justification when caught out is “everybody does it.” Last summer, when the FBI executed a search of Mar-a-Lago for purloined classified documents, Trump demanded, on his social media platform Truth Social, “What happened to the 30 million pages of documents taken from the White House to Chicago by Barack Hussein Obama? He refused to give them back! What is going on? This act was strongly at odds with NARA. Will they be breaking into Obama’s ‘mansion’ in Martha’s Vineyard?” It was rubbish, as the National Archives confirmed in a statement. Obama had turned everything over to the proper authorities. But now, Biden has offered an enormous gift to Trump and his truth-optional allies. Biden really did do something similar.
The TV analysts who are rushing to explain that what Trump did was orders of magnitude worse than what Biden did are correct, but it will not alter the political calculus. What Biden did (so far as we know or have reason to suspect) was negligent but not intentional. And yet, it’s still way too close to Trump’s transgressions for comfort. Millions of Republicans, marinated in grievance, are primed to believe that Trump is the victim of a double standard and they won’t delve too deeply into the distinction between purposely absconding with classified material, lying about it, and defying a subpoena, and simply leaving classified documents in an office closet and in a garage.
The great loss here is not that this makes it more challenging to bring criminal charges against Trump for his contempt of the law regarding classified materials, the tragedy is that this is a victory for the kind of cynicism that Trump has popularized. “Drain the swamp.” “Lock Her Up.” “Stop the Steal.” “Defund the FBI.” Trump’s message has been consistent. Everyone is corrupt. The system is rigged. No one is honest. No one really plays by the rules.
Until now, it seemed that President Biden was defying that theme. His administration has been staffed by grown ups. There have been no scandals. The Department of Justice has been methodical and fair in its prosecutions.
In an appearance on 60 Minutes in September of 2022, Biden was asked: “When you saw the photograph of the top secret documents laid out on the floor at Mar-a-Lago, what did you think to yourself looking at that image?” Scott Pelley was really asking how a respectable government official, a rule upholder, regards those who trash those standards. It was an invitation to express censoriousness on behalf of everyone who would never consider treating national security so cavalierly. Biden replied, “How that could possibly happen, how anyone could be that irresponsible?” At the time, that moment seemed a ratification of normality in American politics. Now, the clip is an arrow in the quiver of the truth-denying nihilists.
Worse, the Biden administration’s post-revelation conduct has been less than inspiring. We now know that Mr. Biden’s lawyers discovered the documents in the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. on November 2. When news leaked on January 9, the White House issued a statement stressing that as soon as these documents were discovered, their existence was reported to the National Archives and they were recovered the following morning. The message: It was an oversight, but as soon as it was discovered, we did things by the book.
Except that a few days later, the White House was obliged to acknowledge that the Penn Biden Center documents were not, in fact, the only ones they found. There was a second tranche of documents, this time discovered in Biden’s Delaware home, that they reported to the Archives on December 20, but only acknowledged publicly on January 12, again only after a press leak.
That looks, in these early days, like the kind of dodgy, hide-the-ball behavior that Biden should have been above. The man who was dismayed by the spectacle of classified documents splayed out on the floor of Mar-a-Lago has been transformed into the tetchy pol explaining that documents locked next to a Corvette were hardly “sitting out on the street.” That is demoralizing for those who believe that Biden’s chief accomplishment–and purpose–as president has been to restore a modicum of trust to a nation that has been sunk in suspicion and bitterness for too long. Being not-Trump demands better.
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