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The Classified Documents Drama Won’t End Joe Biden’s Presidency

US President Joe Biden. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
US President Joe Biden. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Transparency is Joe Biden’s Best Answer to the Classified Documents Scandal: U.S. President Joseph Biden has stumbled into an awkward scandal with parallels to the one surrounding former President Donald Trump.

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Like Trump, Biden appears to have retained classified material away from appropriate and secure locations. Enough material has been found that Attorney General Merrick Garland felt compelled to appoint a special counsel to investigate.

There are two parallels here. First, Trump, too, is enmeshed in such a scandal. This will make it hard for the Democrats to use Trump’s misbehavior as a political issue in the election. Trump’s behavior in his investigation has been far worse, though. Donald Trump obstructed the documents’ return so much, that the government was forced to seek a warrant to search his Mar-a-Lago home. Biden has so far been more open and forthcoming.

The second parallel is to the 2016 presidential election, where Republicans successfully used Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s lax email security against her. That scandal dragged on for months and then years, with a constant drip-drip of stories in the paper.

Goaded by right-wing media, particularly Fox News, it emerged as the major opposition narrative of the Clinton campaign during the race.

When the FBI re-opened its Clinton email investigations in October 2016, that almost certainly threw the election to Trump. Team Biden will certainly want to put this story behind them to avoid a repeat of that election arc next year.

Transparency is Joe Biden’s Best Option

A famous lesson from the impeachment of former President Richard Nixon over Watergate is that he fell because of the cover-up, not the crime itself.

That is, the burglary of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel was likely not an impeachable crime. Nixon probably ordered the break-in, but he could have obfuscated that while apologizing for a campaign out of control.

Although risky, this would have been a better alternative to all the further crimes committed during the ensuing White House cover-up. Watergate eventually took over Nixon’s government, and he was forced out of office because of it.

Trump too has chosen the obfuscation and delay alternative. He has fought the entire process. He has attacked the search of his home as a politically motivated raid. He has leaned on Congressional allies to defend him, and he likely declared his run for the presidency so early in order to forestall that investigation.

Biden would be wise to avoid this route. Modern democracies have robust media, press freedom, and a culture of leaking which makes government secrecy of inappropriate behavior very difficult to hide. And this is a good thing! The Founding Fathers included press freedom to insure clean government, and journalistic investigation of the Trump and Nixon White Houses has been critical to unveiling their abuses.

Biden almost certainly does not want to lumped in with Trump and Nixon, and it will almost certainly be impossible to hide the wayward document details anyway. So Biden should simply tell the truth and get it behind him before the 2024 election heats.

Overclassification is the Other Lesson from Both Stories

The larger lesson from both the Trump and Biden scandals is the relentless urge to classify material despite the America’s democracy commitment to open government. This problem has been well-documented in the national security sector (here, here, here). We do not know whether the documents Trump and Biden retained deserved the classificatory status.

By definition, as classified documents, we will not see them. But there is a reasonable chance in both instances that some of the material was not that critical. The relevant stamping should have warned both presidents and their staff. But it is also possible that either simply made an error and did not realize what they had amid the huge torrent of classified material the government produces. We must wait for the investigatory reports to inform us.

That said, the general bias in democracies should be toward transparency. Classification should not be used to cover-up embarrassing information. We already know this is a problem with police departments which refuse to release incriminating body camera footage. Self-government requires understanding what our elected officials do, and we should only classify material with direct national security impacts. And in time, almost everything should be declassified so that historians can properly write the history of our polity.

Even America’s political class, which benefits most from over-classification recognizes this is a problem. In 2010, it passed a ‘Reducing Over-Classification Act’ to grapple with this problem.

Biden and Trump will both be tarred by this scandal. So far, Biden seems to be handling it far less defensively, if only because he learned from Trump’s failed effort to derail his investigation. This is smart. But the larger background story for both scandals is the need to de-classify more and prevent the rise of secret government.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.