Why Those Documents at Mike Pence’s Place Should Be Bad for Trump

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Having “classified” materials is not the main problem.

Has the FBI checked Dick Cheney’s house?

On Tuesday, a lawyer for former Vice President Mike Pence announced that classified documents at Pence’s Indiana home had been recently found. The news offers a chance to pause for a moment and consider just how far off the rails the general discourse about former officials’ possession of government materials has gone. 

In December, lawyers for President Joe Biden found classified documents stored at his Wilmington, Delaware home. That followed the discovery in November of classified material at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank where Biden stored papers. In August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation searched Mar-a-Lago for documents held by former President Donald Trump.

There is an easy equivalency here. And as more politicians’ lawyers root around their homes for documents, more disclosures may follow, only fueling claims that Trump was not alone in hanging onto classified material. But there is a big distinction: Pence and Biden say they inadvertently kept some documents marked classified. Trump deliberately evaded extensive federal efforts to get him to return government property that he took. 

The primary problem with the material Trump held was not that some of it was “classified.” The problem was the documents weren’t his. Trump allegedly stole government property—if not when he decamped Washington, then at least when he refused to comply with requests by the National Archives and the Justice Department to return it, as the Department of Justice has detailed.

The Trump scandal is not about over-classification: It’s about a former president still acting like he is above the law, and correctly expecting partisans to help him get away with it.

Pence’s discovery was reported the same day that federal prosecutors trying five Proud Boys for seditious conspiracy announced they had found that a witness in the case—also a member of the neo-facist organization—possessed a document with classification markings on it. The Justice Department prosecutors said that the document was available online but had not received an answer from the intelligence community about whether the document remains classified.

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