President Joe Biden began the new year with the political winds at his back: Inflation was finally slowing, the Republican congressional caucus was in disarray, and Democrats’ strong showing in the midterm elections was bolstering Biden’s once-tenuous electability argument for 2024.
However, the recent discoveries of classified documents at Biden’s private home and personal office have derailed this positive momentum, and the president will now face a number of unprecedented challenges in the final two years of his term.
While Biden is likely not at risk of being legally charged for mishandling official records, these revelations have engendered a level of uncertainty that could be difficult for the president and his party to overcome.
There has been a drip-drip of news from the White House regarding additional document discoveries over the last two weeks, which has kept the story at the top of the news cycle. This is a less than ideal scenario which underscores that the administration is unfortunately behind the curve regarding the release of information and their reaction to it.
The first records, which were found at the Penn-Biden Center in Washington, were reported roughly two weeks ago. Days later, the White House reported that a second batch had been found at Biden’s Wilmington residence, but it was later disclosed that this matter had been referred to the Department of Justice weeks earlier. On Saturday, additional documents were discovered at Biden’s home, yet the White House had previously said that only one page was found there.
While the administration was making an honest effort to proceed cautiously with a sensitive matter, this trickle of information has given the Republican-controlled Congress plenty of ammo to cast doubt on Biden’s trustworthiness and on the legitimacy of the federal government’s probe.
“Where’s the raid?” Rep. Jim Jordan, the newly-appointed chair of the House Judiciary Committee, recently tweeted in reference to the August 2022 FBI search of Former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home that was ordered to retrieve classified documents that were being improperly stored there.
Despite Republicans’ attempts to equate Biden’s mishandling of official records to Trump’s, the two cases couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Biden’s staff seemingly made a series of administrative mistakes with a limited number of classified files, which were promptly turned over to the National Archives and the Department of Justice upon discovery, while the Trump team’s motives appear far more nefarious.
Trump had hundreds of classified documents stored Mar-a-Lago, including information on nuclear weapons. His team also ignored a subpoena for the records, while also allegedly “concealing and removing” the documents in an effort to mislead investigators.
Nevertheless, these differences could prove difficult for the White House to underscore in their messaging to the public, especially given that Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate both Biden and Trump. While this was done in an effort to demonstrate the Department of Justice’s impartiality, it inadvertently creates a false equivalency between the two cases.
Republicans in Congress are actively trying to liken the two cases, and have lambasted Biden for being hypocritical, as the president admonished Trump for mishandling classified documents just months ago.
“For years, when President Biden left office, it looks like he took classified documents with him, and he was very critical of President Trump,” Steve Scalise, the new House majority leader, recently said.
While there is no denying that Biden has lost the high-ground on the issue, in reality, it is the Republicans who are the hypocrites: the GOP has decried the probe into Trump, yet now intends to launch an investigation into Biden.
Even if voters spot the Republican Party’s blatant hypocrisy and punish them for it in 2024, the battle between the administration and House Republicans will end up defining the final two years of Biden’s first term.
The House Oversight Committee – which counts far-right Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Lauren Boebert as members – was already determined to impeach at least a few administration officials for a range of (unworthy) causes, and this latest scandal adds fuel to their fire.
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If House Republicans do pursue impeachment, their party will likely face a political blowback in the 2024 elections akin to what the GOP experienced in 1998, as only 37% of Americans believe Biden should face charges related to the records, per a recent Quinnipiac poll.
Thus, there is an opportunity for the president to pivot to a more bipartisan approach in his upcoming State of the Union address, if only to underscore that congressional Republicans are more interested in politically-motivated investigations than addressing real issues like the debt, deficit, and immigration.
Put another way, the Republican Party is indeed vulnerable for overreaching and for politicizing every facet of governance. This ultimately gives Biden an opening to put the GOP on the defensive, while also rededicating himself to the themes and positions that got him elected in the first place: unity, bipartisanship, and progress.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.