Joe Biden looks annoyed. A few days ago it came to light that secret government documents from his time as US Vice President had been found in the Democrat’s private rooms. It turns out on Thursday that classified information was even stored in the garage at the president’s private home in Wilmington, Delaware – where his vintage Corvette is parked.
‘Classifieds next to your Corvette? What were you thinking?” A Fox News reporter asked Biden shortly afterwards at a public appearance. He takes a deep breath and replies defiantly: “My Corvette is in a locked garage, okay.” It is not as if the documents had been lying on the street.
On the same day, Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that a special counsel should investigate the affair. On Monday it became known for the first time that secret documents from the time when Biden was Vice President Barack Obama had appeared in Biden’s private rooms. At first there was only talk of an office in Washington. In the meantime, the White House had to admit the find in the garage. Storing government documents in such places is not allowed. The National Archives are responsible for the preservation. It is even trickier when it comes to secret documents. If they fall into the wrong hands, it could endanger US national security. Has Biden committed a criminal offense? In any case, what the Fox reporter calls a “garage affair” hurts him.
The political danger
The whole thing makes Biden look bad politically. Biden accused his predecessor Donald Trump of all people of being irresponsible with secret government documents. Its Republicans can now practice not only with relish in malice. With their new majority in the House of Representatives, they can now also initiate parliamentary investigations and thus drive Biden in front of them. Also because Biden’s lawyers discovered the first documents just a few days before the parliamentary elections last November, but the public only found out about them now. Those right-wing Republicans who would like to start impeachment proceedings against the president anyway, but haven’t been quite sure why, may now feel inspired. Even if such actions in Parliament ultimately lead to nothing, they are likely to cause Biden and his team a lot of work and get on their nerves.
Biden is about to announce whether he will run for a second term in the 2024 presidential election. Things were actually going well for him after a long dry spell in domestic politics, but while he’s in the middle of this mess it’s hard to imagine him announcing a candidacy for 2024.
The Legal Danger
Whether Biden is in serious legal trouble also depends on the content of the documents. There is no official information about this. According to media reports, most of the material is in some way about other countries – such as Ukraine. The White House has repeatedly emphasized that it itself gave the documents to the National Archives after they were found. The investigation into the affair is still at an early stage. The judiciary has not yet named any specific criminal offences. It is therefore completely open which specific allegations are now being investigated – and whether there could ever be an indictment.
The Trump case
In the summer, a similar case at Trump shook the country: The FBI searched his property in Florida and confiscated thousands of documents, including around a hundred classified items. Unlike Biden, investigators had previously suspected that Trump’s team was illegally withholding important documents. Specific criminal offenses that Trump is considering are obstruction of justice, loss of classified information and the removal or destruction of official documents. All points can be punished with several years imprisonment. In Trump’s case, a special investigator has also taken over and is examining the allegations. But it is also completely open here whether charges could be brought against Trump – he dismisses the whole thing as politically motivated.
Biden’s affair seems to be somewhat different: According to the White House, the documents were initially discovered by accident when clearing out an office. Accordingly, the find was not preceded by a dispute with the National Archives. Finally, Biden’s team actively searched for further documents themselves and found them in his house. The number of documents should also differ, the White House speaks of a small number. But there is no specific number. At least it doesn’t appear as if Biden deliberately wanted to withhold documents.
The failed communication
But the external effect is already a big problem. It’s not just Biden’s sloppy personal reaction that seems out of place. The communication policy of Biden’s entire team has also met with great criticism. The fact that Biden’s lawyers informed the National Archives directly, but kept the public in the dark for weeks and only partially admitted what the US media previously unearthed, is in stark contradiction to the president’s promise of transparency. The documents in Biden’s garage, for example, were discovered on December 20, but the White House only confirmed the find on Thursday – again in response to media reports. Biden’s spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre responds almost helplessly to questions on this and many other sensitive points. Stoically, she always repeats the same text modules and leaves many questions unanswered.
Biden called Trump’s handling of secret documents “irresponsible”, and the recent power struggle among the Republicans in the House of Representatives “embarrassing”. It is precisely these attributes that the Democrat now has to listen to from the political competition. Biden is generally not stingy with moral judgements, presenting himself as the epitome of integrity and decency. Anyone who sets such standards can fall deeply.