Steven Roberts: Let voters decide on Biden, Trump classified documents

Steven Roberts

And now, here’s a preview of coming attractions!

The kerfuffle over President Biden’s handling of classified documents from his vice presidential days raises many legal and political issues. But here’s one critical takeaway: Elections have consequences.

Even though Republicans control the House by only four votes, they now run every committee. They cannot pass any legislation that will become law. They can, however, hold hearings, ask questions, subpoena witnesses and documents and generally make life miserable for the Biden administration.

Immediately after news of Biden’s paper problem surfaced, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the newly minted chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, announced an investigation. He made headlines by going on CNN and calling Biden’s home in Delaware a “crime scene.”

Before last week, Comer — and many other House Republicans — were largely invisible and ineffectual figures in Washington. But now they have a platform — a megaphone — to propound their views, and much bigger staffs to supply them with research and talking points. Their attacks over the documents are only the beginning of a concerted strategy to smear and soil Biden’s reputation as the 2024 campaign heats up.

Which brings up a second takeaway: how the news media will cover the new power balance in the capital. In the last six years, journalists have become far more aggressive in holding Donald Trump and his supporters accountable, and that’s a good thing.

They’ve learned to distinguish between fact and truth. For example, if a journalist writes, “Trump said ‘the election was stolen,’” that statement itself is a fact; he said those words. But the statement contains a lie — it’s not the truth. And the mainstream media has shifted its approach and now vigorously points out those discrepancies.

But aggressiveness should never slip into partisanship. Just as Trump has been held accountable for his statements and actions, so should Biden. CBS, for example, performed a public service by reporting that Biden’s lawyers had found some problematic documents before last fall’s election — but had not told the voting public.

The network continues to hammer Biden’s halting handling of the matter, quoting an unnamed Democratic strategist as saying, “They’re trying to put lipstick on a pig. The problem is … they got handed 50 pigs and one stick of lipstick.”

Another party official wondered, “… why didn’t they get the full story out at once, instead of drip, drip, drip with each new discovery of documents?”

But there’s another tension at work. There is no real equivalency between Trump’s and Biden’s behavior. Trump had retained hundreds of documents, and did it deliberately. Biden’s actions were inadvertent and involved far fewer privileged materials. Trump tried mightily to conceal his cache and hamper investigators; that’s why they had to raid his residence in Florida. Biden’s team seems to have cooperated fully with authorities, so a raid was hardly necessary.

This imbalance brings up the issue of “false equivalency” or “both sides-ism.” By all means, the media should be tough on Biden. At the same time, it’s unfair and inaccurate to imply that both are equally culpable. They are not. And the voting public needs to know that. As political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have cogently put it, “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers.”

It’s understandable that Attorney General Merrick Garland felt compelled to appoint special counsels to investigate both Trump and Biden. But in the end, these are not legal issues, they’re political. The real question is not whether Biden or Trump broke the law, but if they broke the faith. Did their actions tell us something about their judgment? Their character? Their fitness for office?

The answers to those questions should not be rendered by unelected prosecutors or judges or even juries — but by voters.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at s[email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].