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The politics of classified documents

We need greatly simplified and fairly applied laws when it comes to protecting state secrets

The access road to President Joe Biden's home in Wilmington, Del. Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster, file

The politics of classified documents
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When the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago last year there was broad consensus, at least in the press, that Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents was a grave national security concern. It was likely a criminal act, and speculation moved immediately to whether the ensuing prosecution would result in Trump, who’s already announced he’s running for president again in 2024, never being able to hold office again.

Flash-forward a few months, and now that President Biden has been caught having stored classified documents in four different places—including his garage and his Chinese-funded think tank in Pennsylvania—the press’ attitude can be summed up a bit more concisely: “Whoopsie doodle!”

I’m not exaggerating much. ABC News recently did an interview with a former Homeland Security official who is ostensibly an expert on classified documents, and as far as Biden’s concerned, “Security violations sound very, very nefarious, but in many cases, they're just accidents.”

And where the Justice Department took dramatic action by having the FBI raid Trump’s outsize Florida residence, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting the Justice Department “considered having FBI agents monitor a search by President Biden’s lawyers for classified documents at his homes but decided against it,” instead allowing Biden’s personal lawyers to sift through the documents.

One week before the first batch of Biden documents were found, the National Archives and Records Administration, an ostensibly neutral government agency that has been aggressively political in its handling of the Trump case, also said it was “false and misleading” to claim documents from the Obama-Biden presidency had been mishandled.

It is further worth noting that the credulous reports that “nuclear secrets” were found at Mar-a-Lago are based on self-serving leaks from unelected bureaucrats desperate to justify an unprecedented raid on a former president. Those leaks are at best a deeply unprofessional example of how our bloated administrative state is abusing our trust and at worst a possibly illegal act that we have good reason to believe is misleading and sensationalized.

Hillary Clinton egregiously violated classified laws in a way that went far beyond what Trump or Biden may have done.

But despite all of this, once again outbursts from Trump and his defenders in response to the raid are detracting from his ability to make a persuasive, let alone logical, case that he’s been treated unfairly. And it’s important to remember that while Trump and his allies have a strong case that the former president is the victim of a gross double standard, that doesn’t mean the standard doesn’t exist in the first place.

Further, without knowing what information is contained in the classified documents recovered, it’s hard to judge how serious a transgression either man has made. It is important to keep some state secrets closely held; it’s also true that in a country that has granted millions of people security clearances, our metastasizing national security state declares 50 million documents a year “classified” and is slow to declassify documents as required by law. Millions of those documents should have never been classified in the first place.

In fact, in sifting through the facts of the Biden-Trump classified docs controversy, the politician who comes out looking the worst may be … Hillary Clinton. She did official business off an insecure email server in her own home, so there was never a way to filter or protect sensitive information. And unlike the tangible paper documents in Joe Biden’s garage or a locked room at Mar-a-Lago, Clinton’s server was all online and vulnerable to hackers from all over the world. She then destroyed the evidence when investigators came calling.

Clinton egregiously violated classified laws in a way that went far beyond what Trump or Biden may have done. The result was the director of the FBI holding a press conference where he clearly laid out all the reasons why what she did broke the law and then pivoted to explaining why she wouldn’t be prosecuted. The media and Democratic activists—apologies for repeating myself—then adopted the rallying cry, “But her emails!” to mock anyone who thought her behavior was criminal and ingratiate themselves to the woman they were confident was going to be the next president. Ironically, it was the ill-timed news that her confidential emails ended up on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced congressmen and sex offender husband of a top aide, that may have finally sunk her candidacy.

Americans’ faith in the rule of law has historically been one of our great strengths. But the fact that authorities made nakedly political exceptions to enforcing these laws in relatively recent political history makes the prosecution of either Trump or Biden for violating these laws something a large number of Americans would have trouble accepting—no matter how guilty they are shown to be.

Whether they hate Trump or loathe Biden, Americans should all agree we need greatly simplified, clearly understood, and fairly applied laws when it comes to protecting our state secrets. As it stands, the press leaks and weaponization of our current byzantine rules by bureaucrats and partisans point to an ominous future where power, not principle, will dictate our politics and the fate of our country.

Mark Hemingway

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at RealClearInvestigations and the books editor at The Federalist. He was formerly a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Examiner, and a staff writer at National Review. He is the recipient of a Robert Novak Journalism fellowship and was a two-time Global Prosperity Initiative Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He was a 2014 Lincoln Fellow of The Claremont Institute and a Eugene C. Pulliam Distinguished Fellow in Journalism at Hillsdale College in 2016. He is married to journalist and Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway, and they have two daughters.

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