Is There an Equivalency Between Biden and Trump’s Handling of Classified Documents?

Prior administrations have had Presidential Records Act violations. Past presidents have had to return items they took with them after leaving the White House. There are a great number of documents generated and acquired during a presidency and sometimes presidents leave with or have shipped to them some of these.

I hasten to qualify the first sentence in the above paragraph. There are no criminal penalties attached to the Presidential Records Act. Therefore, “violation” may be too strong a word. It is more accurate to say that the Presidential Records Act is guidance for presidents to follow to make sure the national archivist possesses in the end of all public records generated by the president during his term in office. I should also note that there is Vice-Presidential Records Act. The vice-president has to follow the rules of everybody else who is not the president.

It’s important to recognize that problem here is not that presidents can’t keep records after their presidency. The law requires that each administration preserve presidential records so that a complete set of presidential records can be transferred to the National Archives at the end of the administration. A complete record of documents generated during a presidency is regarded as vital to the history of the republic.

Under the US Constitution, the president as commander in chief is given broad powers to classify and declassify information. Where the president does not have unilateral authority to declassify is in statute, e.g., information related to nuclear weapons is handled separately according to terms set forth in the Atomic Energy Act. Declassifying these secrets requires consultation with executive branch agencies.

When President Trump was president, his residences were modified and secured. For example, as president, Trump spent a lot of time at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate. Considered one of the most secure buildings in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago was already built like a fortress. It was designed in the 1920s to withstand hurricanes (which it has without suffering any structural damage). Trump continues to enjoy Secret Service protection. The agency safe-proofed his house. 

The SCIF at Mar-a-Lago where Trump viewed classified documents

The term “SCIF,” which I suspect a great many Americans are just learning about, is an acronym for “sensitive compartmented information facility.” There is a SCIF in the basement of Mar-a-Lago. Trump viewed classified documents there throughout his presidency. At other times they were kept in a safe.

The image shared publicly by DOJ showing redacted documents spread out on the carpeted floor of Mar-a-Lago, some with cover pages reading “Secret” on them are displayed in identical fashion to staged photos by the FBI and associates, e.g., the Fred Hampton assassination, as well as by the CIA, e.g., in the toppling of President Árbenz of Guatemala.

Classified document strew on the floor of a room at Mar-a-Lago during the FBI raid of the Trump’s residence and photographed by an agent.

The CIA-assisted coup in Guatemala involving public relations man Edward Bernays is instructive. Bernays, who had argued in his 1928 book, Propaganda, that the “manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” not only advised United Fruit President Sam Zemurray and the company’s publicity director Ed Whitman (the husband of Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman) on how to prepare the American public to view intervention in Guatemala as necessary and good, played a direct role in production of a photograph in which documents were arranged such to support the CIA’s claims that Árbenz was a communist.

Biden backing his Corvette into the garage of his Wilmington residence with boxes of classified documents clearly visible.

The Trump situation is very different from the Joe Biden situation. Biden was vice-president under Obama during the period these documents were removed. Some of the documents in his possession are marked top-secret compartmented, the highest-level of secrecy. He would only have been able to view these documents in a SCIF and under observation. A box of classified documents was found next to a Corvette in his garage. Biden’s garage is a not SCIF. It is not a secure location for highly classified documents. 

The Biden family has had these top secret compartmented documents for at least six years. He has stashed these documents in multiple locations. How were these documents obtained? Documents like this have strict chain-of-custody. Nobody is going to allow a Vice-President or an aid to just leave with them without checking them out and checking them back in. Who obtained them? How many times were they moved after Biden came to possess them? Who moved them and when? Who has viewed them and where? Were copies made of these documents? If so, where are they? Do the attorneys reviewing these documents have the proper security clearance to do so? Why did the Executive wait until after the midterm elections to tell citizens that Biden was in possession of stolen documents when they knew this several days before the election? Did the FBI raid Biden’s offices and residence to look for these documents? If so, when? Which locations. If not, why not?

Why did Biden or his associates take these documents. Is there information in those documents that makes them useful to his family’s ambitions? Was there anything in those documents that implicates Biden or his associates in crimes? Did he shred any documents? Did he copy any documents? Shouldn’t the DOJ raid his offices and residences to find other documents. More keep showing up (another batch yesterday). Are Biden’s lawyers going through the documents and returning only those that don’t implicate the president in crimes or expose motivations behind his actions as president (for example the Ukraine war)? Shouldn’t law enforcement do this now to prevent the hiding and shredding of other documents? These are crime scenes. These are crimes that go the heart of national security. Biden has endangered America. You don’t allow somebody who is implicated in felonies to decide how, when, and what to return to the authorities. These are crimes Biden committed before he was president.

I will be interested to know how and why Biden removed them from their secure location to his offices at the Penn Biden Center and one of his residences and all the rest of it. But since they are stolen documents, how and why he made off with him is rather beside the point. Possession of stolen classified documents is a crime independent of motive. Biden’s attempt to excuse his actions as “inadvertent” won’t work, either. You don’t get to break the law and then claim you didn’t mean to.

But speaking of motive. Guess who shared the Wilmington, Delaware residence with Joe Biden?

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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