Biden’s Document Issue Is Nothing Like Trump’s

So enough with the long-faced chin-scratching, Democrats.

A photo of Biden and Trump gesturing toward each other in a TV debate.
The Atlantic; Jim Bourg / Pool / AFP / Getty

No equivalence exists in the ways that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have respectively handled the classified documents found in their possession. Yet panicky Democrats—ruled either by a thirst for TV airtime or by a knee-jerk defensive reflex—are suggesting that one does.

Biden’s enemies might be expected to use an argument of false equivalence to attack him, but surely not people who are supposed to be his allies. I’m talking to you, Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Jim Himes.

Biden should be “embarrassed by the situation,” Durbin told CNN, adding that the president had “lost the high ground on this notion of classified information being where it shouldn’t be.”

“Anytime there are classified documents outside of a secure space, I am profoundly troubled, whether that space is owned by a Republican president or a Democratic president,” Himes said, also to CNN. “It’s a big problem.”

If anything should embarrass or trouble these Democrats, it is their failure to examine the facts and grasp the utter difference in the Biden and Trump cases. What in tarnation are they doing?

In their flap, they have forgotten the first principle of politics: What matters above all is public opinion and preventing a distorted narrative from becoming entrenched.

According to a recent NBC poll, about two-thirds of Americans are now as concerned about Biden’s handling of classified documents as they are about Trump’s, despite the gulf of difference between the president’s actions and those of the habitual scofflaw Trump. What’s most worrying is Biden’s standing among Democratic voters: A majority of Democrats surveyed, 52 percent, said they’re concerned about Biden’s documents, just one point less than the percentage of Republicans who are concerned about Trump’s.

In other words, these Democratic chin-scratchers on TV are giving license to Trump and smearing Biden. Halt! If not in the name of the law, then of common sense.

The law is actually on their side, if they bothered to find out about it. In recent weeks, I have spoken with a number of highly regarded attorneys on the issue, and begged them, please, to find me a non-laughable defense of Trump’s handling of the Mar-a-Lago documents. They simply could not.

So the false equivalence that these Democrats are promoting is this: On the one hand, Biden made an error about which he was apparently unaware and that he promptly sought to correct, acting properly in tandem with the authorities in every respect; on the other hand, Trump as usual used the law as a roll of heavy-duty Charmin, repeatedly obstructing the National Archives, the FBI, and the Department of Justice, and persisting in the concealment of secret documents in his possession. It shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does for some Democrats: These are not the same.

Telling the truth about the differences is not only the right thing to do; it’s the politically smart thing to do. In politics, offense is the best defense.

Democrats are coming off the most impressive midterm cycle led by a Democratic president in generations. In large part because of the president’s historic accomplishments during his first term, voters turned back the Republican fear campaign.

So Democrats are on a roll. And if Trump is the GOP’s nominee in 2024, they have every opportunity to run up the score on a wounded candidate who has led his party to nothing but losses since his election in 2016. Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, his base will continue to be a liability for the GOP: A Bulwark poll this week found that a full 28 percent of Republican voters would support Trump if he stood for a third party.

Yet all of this can be drowned out by just one narrative. Republicans love nothing better than to turn something baseless into something pervasive. And Democrats too often act as mindless accomplices, giving credence to the false equivalences that bubble up when the media cover Trump-related partisan issues. A recent report from Media Matters outlines the underlying pathology: Although Biden freely handed over the few documents in his possession to the Department of Justice and opened up his home to searches, parts of the news media are now discounting the significance of Trump’s document mishandling.

The CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel prepared the way. Trump “clearly wanted to keep those things as souvenirs or for whatever and fought giving them back,” said Gangel on CNN, but the Biden documents story “may help him legally.” Legally? Let’s just say that I would have flunked my first year of law school if I’d said that.

Through this sort of speculation, some pundits are suggesting that the special prosecutors appointed in each case, Jack Smith and Robert Hur, will somehow end up paying more attention to each other than to the facts of the matter before them. I doubt that Smith or Hur needs CNN to explain the centrality of intent in criminal law. But the CNN analyst Margaret Talev recently said, “I think, Pence revelations aside, the drip, drip of the Biden discoveries does defuse this issue, takes it off the table as a real weapon to use against Trump.”

In the absence of robust counterarguments from Democratic leaders, such statements are being served up to a nightly audience that largely comprises Democratic voters. And by going along with the false premise, Democrats are filling their own supporters with despair.

Let’s revisit the nightmare of 2016 to understand what could lie ahead. Thanks to a similar dynamic of media herd mentality and Democratic defensiveness over Hillary Clinton’s emails, a 2016 poll found that nearly half of Americans saw the issue as “very concerning.” The narrative about Biden’s documents is in danger of taking root in much the same way—that’s what the polling today is showing. All these years later, does anyone know that Clinton mishandled zero classified documents among her emails? I’ll say it again: zero.

If the DOJ-appointed Hur goes about his business like a straight shooter, Biden will be exonerated. But if the media smear continues, it will be with the unbidden assistance of pearl-clutching Democrats. Next year could be the same as 2016, if they don’t correct the course now.