Revelations that President Biden, like his predecessor former President Trump, kept unauthorized classified materials upon leaving executive office have rocked Washington and dominated news in recent days, which is quite a statement given how many other big stories are competing for coverage. While Biden will not technically have to report to the Federal Election Commission the invaluable gifts he has bestowed on the likes of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican Conference, Rep. George Santos, and Trump, there is no question that the largesse was great.
McCarthy’s messy 15-ballot ascension to the speaker’s chair, the concessions he had to make to get there, and the cleavages the whole episode exposed within his conference were all stories that Republicans were desperate to get out of the news.
Divided government is challenging enough, but a small and badly divided majority led by a weakened speaker was going to have its hands full just keeping the government’s lights on (with some of its members not exactly supportive of even that), passing the five-year farm bill that expires this year, and raising the debt limit.
Republicans also didn’t mind something bumping their miscreant freshman member Santos off of the front pages, along with the reality that McCarthy and his leadership can scarcely afford expelling a member who represents a fifth of their margin in the House, particularly given the danger of forcing a special election this year in a district with a 2-point tilt toward Democrats in the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index.
And then there are both the legal and political benefits for Trump, Biden’s once and quite possibly future opponent. Trump had lost a great deal of political altitude since the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago winter home in August. Once the backstory was known, it was hard for anyone but the true Kool-Aid drinkers to defend his actions. Now, however, his backers have some new ammunition with which to fight back, whether it’s the “everyone does it” argument or the “Biden and Democrats are hypocrites” line of defense.
One of the biggest dangers for Trump was that a critical mass of those Republicans who are not part of his core base would either turn against him or simply reach the conclusion that he might be unelectable. The Biden scandal cushions the “Trump is unelectable” argument, at least for a while.
This is all happening just as Democrats were coming to really enjoy the fruits of their midterm-election results, picking up a Senate seat, and keeping their House losses down to single digits. In no time, party flacks were pushing the talking point that the election was a referendum on Biden after all and the results an affirmation of Biden and the Democratic Congress’s record. A far more persuasive argument would be that their better-than-expected showing came despite Biden and their party, not because of it. The Dobbs decision, coupled with the inexperienced, deeply flawed, and fairly extreme candidates the GOP put up in key races probably had as much to do with it as Democrats’ own sales pitch.
Deserved or not, the midterm results attached something of a halo over the head of this president, who often likes to quote his father: “Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”
At least for a time, the Almighty may be the more apt comparison. Watch for at least something of a hit in his approval ratings, which had been ticking up since the midterms.
Democrats’ beating-the-point spread November performance also muted some of the calls for Biden to not seek a second term. When asked if they thought Biden should run again, 30 percent of respondents to the National Election Pool exit poll, conducted by Edison Research for ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC, said he should, while 67 percent said no. Among Democrats, 83 percent said yes to just 31 percent who said no. Among Republicans, 15 percent said yes he should run again to 67 percent who said he should not.
Some might be surprised at the attention these things are getting, but remember that for those in the intelligence community or who receive or handle classified work product, even technical violations are taken very seriously—and often end careers. In 1999, the immediate past CIA Director John Deutch had his security clearance suspended by his successor George Tenet for violation of rules regarding handling classified material on an unsecured computer at home.
At this point, one can only imagine staffers for each of the remaining living former presidents (Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Carter), as well as the former vice presidents (Mike Pence, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Dan Quayle) and a number of presidential libraries, scurrying around to ensure that they don’t have similar exposure.
While few should have expected Trump to be a model of discretion and discipline on such things, Biden is another matter. Particularly given his long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he and his staff were supposed to know better. He was to make things normal again.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 17, 2023.
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