WASHINGTON (AP) – Democrats reacted with offended fury when former President Donald Trump was found in possession of classified documents that should have been turned over to the government when he left office. Then revelations that President Joe Biden also mishandled classified papers unleashed a Republican “Well what about” roar.
Now, with yet another discovery of classified documents, this time in the home of Trump Vice President Mike Pence, the partisan finger-pointing seems to be merging in a chorus of humiliation for both Democrats and Republicans.
The top US secrets, it now appears, are not necessarily secure with the highest officials. Not when they are in the hands of Trump, who despises government rules and customs, and not in the hands of Biden and Pence, who sign them.
“What the hell is going on here?” asked Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, when asked about Pence.
“Obviously there is a systemic problem in the executive branch” said Rubio. “We’re talking about two back-to-back governments from two different parties where officials at the highest level have documents in their possession in places they don’t belong to.”
The Democratic chair of that body, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, had some strong advice for all ex-presidents and future presidents, regardless of party: “Go check your closets.”
The latest revelation came from Pence’s attorney Greg Jacob, who informed the National Archives – the proper place for such material – that classified documents were found at Pence’s Indiana home last week.
Jacob said what appeared to be a small number of papers were accidentally bagged and transported home at the end of the Trump administration and came to light when Pence, prompted by the discoveries at Biden’s home and the think-tank offices before the president, asked attorneys to see them if he had any.
Special Counsel is investigating the cases of Trump and Biden. In all three matters, the significance of the classified material and whether its misuse violates national security is not public knowledge. But it is clear that some of the documents found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla. were top secret.
Trump, a Republican, found it an affront that the government came and searched his quarters for classified material he was not supposed to have, despite fighting for months efforts to recover it and forcing the government to issue a subpoena to get them you. Aides to Biden, a Democrat, say they cooperated quickly and fully when such material was found in a former Washington office, despite waiting months to make public what happened.
In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a candidate to chair the Intelligence Committee, said he would seek the same intelligence review and damage assessment on the Pence case as on previous discoveries.
“It is a serious matter for any government official to mishandle classified documents.” Turner said.
Careless handling of secure information by top officials became a politically charged issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was investigated for her rampant email practices as secretary of state.
Then-FBI chief James Comey concluded that it was she and her aides “extremely careless in dealing with very sensitive, top secret information”, but not intentionally, and he advised against prosecution.
The sprawling, clumsy US government has plenty of people who can see at least some secrets and are supposed to keep them top secret. About 1.25 million had top-secret clearances in 2019, according to a government report.
Leaking classified information to the media is not uncommon. But lawmakers from both parties said something is broken in the classification system when a president, ex-president and ex-vice president are found with papers to which they are not entitled.
“I do not believe there was ‘sinister motive’ in relation to the handling of classified information by President Biden, President Trump or Vice President Pence.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted. “We have a classified information issue that needs to be addressed.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., had been working for years on an overhaul of the classification system, which he described as a “Cracked up mess.”
“The overall system has gotten to a point where there’s so much out there that it’s difficult to determine what should be classified, and then it’s difficult to determine what should be released.” Wyden said.
Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, “has begun to work on this on a truly bipartisan basis for the first time in many years,” Wyden added. “I think it’s a bold move for her.”
“Maybe it’s as easy as packing boxes.” Rubio considered. “I’m aware of the processes we have in place to protect such material at the legislative level, but we need to better understand how this is handled at the senior level, and probably not just presidents and vice presidents, but at key staff levels and other government officials.” who have access to it.”
Representatives of former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Bush Vice President Dick Cheney, said no instances of classified documents were found after their term in office was found outside the custody of the archives.
But at least several times a year, former officials from all levels of government discover they have classified material and turn it over to authorities, said a person familiar with the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of classified documents.
This person said former President Jimmy Carter found classified material at his home in Plains, Georgia, on at least one occasion and returned it to the National Archives. But Carter’s records legally belonged to him, because it was only after his presidency that the law defined all presidential and vice presidential records as property of the US government.
Jason R. Baron, a former National Archives trial director, said it’s possible for innocent mistakes to happen when one government hands over power to the next, when that’s the case “The rushed nature of the staff preparing for a presidential change.”
“I am not surprised that documents with secret markings can be found mixed with personal papers in the homes of former government officials.” he said. He recommended that outgoing officials at the highest levels should be required to produce certain papers “personally” too much stricter checks before crates leave the premises.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, it was becoming clear that the Pence episode had reset the blame game.
“No one is above the law,” said Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott. “I don’t know how anyone gets classified documents. … I mean, every classified document I’ve ever seen has a big ‘secret’ written on it.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas noted that classified documents are only brought out of the committee’s offices in locked bags.
“In my opinion, it is never permissible to take classified documents outside a secure facility or between such secure facilities by any secure means of transport.” he said.
Wyden said it always was in his many years on the committee “Lodestar” that you don’t take anything from the room.
“Period,” he said. “Point.”