President Trump’s desire to remove and retain White House records has exposed a major national security problem.  In fact, we have two problems – one personal and one institutional.

So far, we have three national leaders who have improperly and illegally removed documents from the government’s possession –some classified.  And the classified range overall levels of classification.  Both Trump and Biden had documents classified at the gravest level of secrecy.

Trump clearly knew he took documents – claiming he had a right to do so – how and why President Biden and Vice President Pence came into the possession of documents has yet to be seen.  They both claimed to be unaware of those documents in their files and have voluntarily returned them

The Trump case stands apart from Biden and Pence in that he never claimed the removal was an accident in the haste of leaving office. The details of the Trump case are playing out in real time in a highly charged public feud between him and the Department of justice.  That will undoubtedly be settled in the courts.

The Biden/Pence situation is different but just as troublesome.  If we believe them, it is no big deal.  They have no personal culpability in the taking and retaining of essentially purloined government property — that is if you believe them. 

That does not absolve them from being the primary reason the documents are in their personal files.  The significant question is how the documents got commingled with their personal files in the White House in the first place – before the move.  How, when, and why were they removed from the official SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Files) location?  Who retrieved them?  Why were they never returned?

Since the documents improperly removed were already in the personal files of Biden and Pence, Biden and Pence must have requested them and used them at some time for some purpose.  Were they viewed by unauthorized people in the White House?  And who had access after they were removed?

The levels of personal culpability may differ.  Trump took them intentionally and wanted to keep them.  He has said as much.  Biden took them over at least a 14-year period – and had some in Senate files. 

How and why he got those are completely different issues.  It seems to suggest that when he said, “I take classified documents seriously,” the sentence was one word too long.  So far – and it is early – Pence seems to have the strongest case for inadvertent removal – but that does not absolve him from having classified documents, and all the questions that it raises.

The Trump/Biden/Pence cases raise much larger issues.  How many more documents are improperly in the private files of past presidents and vice presidents …  Cabinet members … White House staffers?  I tend to believe that there are literally thousands of them – and that we are merely seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Government produces nothing more than documents.

The investigation of Trump, Biden, and Pence is not just to determine their culpability, but to discover all the unauthorized individuals who handled the classified documents– and who could have had access to them — relative to the importance and classification of each document.

And then, what to do about the evidence.  Will any of the three be subjected to civil or criminal prosecution? Trump is already under criminal investigation.  Though television pundits are quick to absolve Biden and Pence, we cannot know that at this time.  At this point, however, Biden and Pence seem to be in the least trouble in terms of criminality.  And Biden could not be prosecuted until he is no longer President.  

As the problem widens, it may be more difficult for Attorney General Garland to prosecute anyone.  He faces the prospect of prosecuting a lot of powerful individuals – and using prosecutorial discretion to drop all the cases.  What will Garland do if other presidents, vice presidents, Cabinet members, and staffers start hemorrhaging official government documents by the thousands – classified or otherwise?

All this strongly suggests that the United States classification process needs to be investigated and reformed.  That means bureaucratic regulations and acts of Congress – maybe even a constitutional amendment.  In the meantime, government documents will be an evergreen topic in the national media for most of the 2024 presidential election season.  

A deeper dive into the general subject of secret classification – partially based on my days at the White House — will come in a subsequent commentary.

So, there ‘tis.