Joe Biden’s documents mess

HAVING CLASSIFIED documents found in your garage is never a good look, particularly when you’ve previously berated your rival for doing something similar. Trying to reassure the American public about the discovery, as Joe Biden sought to do on January 12th, by stating that your Corvette is in that same locked garage, “so it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street”, is sure to backfire. Inevitably, the hashtag #BidenGarage was born, accompanied by spoof images of the president driving a sports car with documents flying out of the back.

On Monday news broke that on November 2nd, a week before America’s midterm elections, several sensitive documents were found by Mr Biden’s personal lawyers as they cleared out his former office at the Penn Biden Centre, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Three days later Richard Sauber, a White House lawyer, announced the discovery of a “small” second batch, this time in a storage space in the garage and an adjacent room in the Bidens’ family home in Wilmington, Delaware.

For Democrats, who have insisted that Donald Trump should face criminal prosecution for his mishandling of classified papers found at his resort home of Mar-a-Lago, this is terrible news. For Republicans, it is an unexpected gift—one enjoyed in particular by Mr Trump. “When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House?” he asked on Truth Social, his social-media platform. Other Republicans have piled in, demanding that the Justice Department treat Mr Biden with the same rigour as it has Mr Trump: in November the attorney-general, Merrick Garland, had appointed a special counsel to oversee investigations involving the former president.

Sure enough, on Thursday Mr Garland appointed a special counsel, Robert Hur, to review Mr Biden’s case, authorising him to prosecute any federal crimes arising from the investigation. Mr Hur is a lawyer who was nominated by Mr Trump in 2017 to serve as US attorney in Maryland, serving in the role until his resignation in 2021. He has promised to “follow the facts swiftly and thoroughly without fear or favour”.

Clearly both Mr Trump and Mr Biden have been sloppy, at the very least. Classified documents are supposed to be stored in secure locations, not garages or clubs. And all White House records should go straight to the National Archives when a presidency ends. Although the content of the documents found at Mr Biden’s premises is not yet known (and his lawyers claim they did not take a peek before handing them over), several were classified, according to the White House, as was the case with many of those stashed away at Mar-a-Lago.

Such similarities mean that the moral high ground has crumbled under Mr Biden. Although the two cases may turn out to be very different, in terms of intent and the types and quantity of documents involved, the public-relations battle seems already to have been lost by team Biden. A prosecution of Mr Trump, which Democrats have pressed for, becomes even less likely.

Allies of Mr Biden have been at pains to emphasise that the two cases are fundamentally different. They claim that for Mr Biden it was a matter of an honest mistake, whereas the Trump saga is one of deliberate obfuscation and obstruction: Mr Trump tried to block any attempts to recover the (hundreds of) documents held in his home and it took many months, and a search by the FBI, to get hold of them. Mr Biden’s team claims to have handed over the first batch of documents as soon as they were discovered, and the documents in the second location were found as part of a search of Mr Biden’s properties instigated not by an FBI warrant but volunteered by Mr Biden himself.

Several uncomfortable questions remain for Mr Biden, however. How did documents from Barack Obama’s presidency get to these places? Why were they (still) there? What information did they contain? And, given that the first batch was found in November, and much of the rest on December 20th, why did it take until this week for all this to be publicly revealed? One thing is certain: the newly empowered Republicans in Congress will make it their mission to pursue the answers.