WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats have responded with angry outrage after former President Donald Trump was found in possession of classified documents that should have been turned over to the administration when he left office. Then revelations that President Joe Biden also mishandled classified documents led to Republicans roaring “well, so what.”
Now, with another discovery of classified documents, this time at the home of Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, partisan finger-pointing appears to be melting into a chorus of frustration from Democrats and Republicans alike.
The US’s highest secrets, it now appears, are not necessarily safe with the highest officials. Not when they are in the hands of Trump, who flouts the rules and customs of government, and not in the hands of Biden and Pence, who subscribe to them.
“What the hell is going on around here?” asked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, when asked about Pence.
“Obviously there is a systemic problem in the executive branch,” Rubio said. “We’re talking about two successive administrations from two different parties, with officials at the highest level holding documents in places they don’t belong.”
The Democratic chairman of that committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, had some tumultuous advice for all past and future presidents regardless of party: “Go check your closets.”
The latest revelation came from Pence’s attorney, Greg Jacobs, who informed the National Archives — the proper place for such material — that classified documents were found at Pence’s Indiana home last week.
Jacobs said an apparently small number of documents were accidentally packed up and moved to the home at the end of the Trump administration and came to light when Pence, spurred by discoveries at Biden’s home and the offices of the presidential think tank, asked lawyers to see if he had too.
Special prosecutors are investigating the Trump and Biden incidents. In all three cases, the significance of the classified material and whether its mishandling violates national security is not publicly known. But it is clear that some of the documents recovered from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, were top secret.
Trump, a Republican, found it insulting that the government searched his home for classified material it shouldn’t have, even though he had been fighting to recover it for months, and the government had to issue a subpoena to get it. Aides to Biden, a Democrat, say they cooperated quickly and fully when such material was found in a former Washington office, though they waited months to make public what had happened.
In the Republican-controlled House, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a nominee to lead the Intelligence Committee, said he would request the same intelligence review and damage assessment in the Pence case as he has in previous discoveries.
“It is a serious matter for any government official to mishandle classified documents,” Turner said.
The careless handling of secure information by top officials became a politically charged issue during the 2016 presidential race when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was investigated for lax email practices as secretary of state.
Then-FBI Director James Comey concluded that she and their aides were “grossly careless in their handling of highly sensitive, highly classified information,” but not willful, and recommended that no criminal charges be brought.
The sprawling, thankless US government has many people who can see at least some secrets and are supposed to keep them close. About 1.25 million held top secret clearances in 2019, according to a government report.
Leaks of classified information to the media are not uncommon. But lawmakers from both parties said something breaks in the classification system when a president, a former president and a former vice president are found with documents they are not entitled to have.
“I do not believe there was ‘weak motivation’ in connection with the handling of classified information by President Biden, President Trump or Vice President Pence,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. “We have a classified information problem that needs to be fixed.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., had been working for years on an overhaul of the classification system, which he called ” utter chaos.”
“The overall system is at the point where there’s so much out there that it’s hard to determine what should be classified, and then it’s hard to determine what should be declassified,” Wyden said.
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, “has begun the chore of, for the first time really in years and years, working on a bipartisan basis on this,” Wyden added. “I think it’s a brave move for her.”
“Maybe it’s as simple as how they pack boxes,” Rubio mused. “I know the processes we have in place to protect such material at the legislative level, but we need to have a better understanding of how this is handled at the executive level, and probably not just limited to the presidents and vice presidents, but executives and other officials of government that have access to it.”
Spokesmen for former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, said no instances of classified documents were found outside of their post-term custody records.
But at least several times a year, former officials from all levels of government discover they have classified material and turn it over to authorities, said a person familiar with the process, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the classified documents.
This person said former President Jimmy Carter found classified material at his home in Plains, Georgia, at least once and returned it to the National Archives. But Carter’s records were legally his because the law designated all presidential and vice-presidential records as the property of the US government only after his presidency.
Jason R. Barron, former director of litigation at the National Archives, said innocent mistakes are likely to happen when one administration hands over power to the next, given “the tough nature of staff preparing for a presidential transition.”
“I am not surprised that documents with classified markings can be found mixed with personal papers in the homes of former government officials,” he said. He recommended that outgoing officials at the highest levels should submit documents that are largely “personal”. stricter reviews before the boxes leave the facility.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, it was becoming clear that the Pence episode had reignited the blame game.
“No one is above the law,” said Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. “I don’t know how someone ends up with classified documents… I mean, every classified document I’ve seen has a big ‘ Classified on it.’
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted that classified documents are moved out of committee offices only in locked bags.
“In my book, classified documents are never allowed to be moved out of a secure facility or by any secure means of transportation between those secure facilities,” he said.
Wyden said that in his many years on the committee, it has always been a “lodestar” not to take anything out of the room.
“Period,” he said. “Perfect”.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Zeke Miller and Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.