How Pence’s classified documents storm could be good news for Biden and Trump

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Ex-Vice President Mike Pence has clear designs on Joe Biden’s job. But for now, the potential 2024 Republican candidate may have done the president a favor. And he might also have done one last service to his old boss, Donald Trump.

The discovery of classified documents in Pence’s home in Indiana, as first reported by CNN Tuesday, took the heat off Biden’s struggles to explain his possession of such material from his own vice presidency. And it made Pence the most popular man in the White House Tuesday. For one thing, the rumbling saga of secret documents had a new front man.

This was a huge embarrassment for Pence, exposing him to mockery and accusations of hypocrisy since he’d claimed moral high ground over Biden when the president was under fire for keeping documents and the Indiana Republican said he didn’t have any.

Biden’s aides leapt at the chance to draw a more innocuous comparison between the behavior of the president and Pence than the more damaging one that’s been suggested for days between Biden and Trump, who appears to be in far greater trouble over his classified documents storm.

And at first sight, the comparison seems fair. Neither Pence nor Biden appeared to obstruct investigators once modest batches of documents were discovered at their homes – even if the White House’s management of the crisis has been sluggish and sometimes misleading to the public. Both returned the material when it was found. And each may argue that the transfer of material to their private homes was accidental.

One official told CNN Chief White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly that the Pence case was a “helpful example” of another former vice president dealing with issues arising from a transition out of office. The source also noted that Pence, like Biden, previously said he had no knowledge of having classified documents.

Trump by contrast had hundreds of documents, claimed they were his, appeared to cover up what he had, accused the FBI of planting incriminating material and even bizarrely claimed that he had the power to declassify them with a private thought.

Trump seeks to exploit Pence’s discomfort

Still, while the Pence revelations clearly do Biden a favor, they also provide an inadvertent political opening for Trump. That’s because it may be difficult for many voters not steeped in the details of the document saga to distinguish the nuances of the trio of cases. The more such stashes are unearthed, and the more top current and former executive branch officials are involved, the more it seems that such discoveries are no big deal or that everyone involved is equally at fault.

There appear to still be clear legal grounds to show that Trump’s retention of hundreds of documents when he left office – as well as attempts to stop their return and to obstruct the investigation – could reach the level of criminality. But the widening documents controversy – and the revelations about other leaders – threatens to undermine such a potential finding by the Justice Department.

Any suggestion that Trump is being singled out and treated unfairly, even if it is unfounded, will be used by the ex-president to bolster his claims he’s the victim of political persecution. The stakes are especially inflammatory given his declared 2024 presidential campaign.

Trump was quick to try to tie his own case to that of Pence, even as the White House also tried to distance Biden from his predecessor’s legal tangle.

For a day at least, Trump put aside his fury over Pence’s refusal to block the congressional certification of Biden’s 2020 election victory, which led to their estrangement, and rushed to his formerly loyal subordinate’s defense.

“Mike Pence is an innocent man. He never did anything knowingly dishonest in his life. Leave him alone!!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social Network. Sources close to the ex-president, meanwhile, told CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Kristen Holmes that they believe the flap over Biden’s and Pence’s documents makes it harder for the Department of Justice to eventually level charges against any of them.

Pence discoveries rock the classified documents investigations

The latest twist in the classified documents imbroglio raised a flurry of new questions in Washington, which has been transfixed by the saga, even if it may not top the list of the things that most preoccupy Americans outside the capital.

They include:

Will Pence now also face investigation by a special counsel?

Attorney General Merrick Garland has already appointed these semi-independent prosecutors to look at both the Trump and Biden classified documents cases to avoid any impression of political interference. Currently, the FBI and the Justice Department’s National Security Division have launched a review of the Pence documents and how they ended up in his home in Indiana.

Will Pence open his property for a search by the FBI, as Biden did last week? The bureau had to get a court-approved warrant to do the same at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort amid suspicions that he had not turned over all classified material, despite a subpoena.

At least one swing district Republican, Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, said Pence should be treated the same as Biden and Trump. “If they did a special counsel for Biden after we had one on President Trump, so we should do things fair, and this shouldn’t be a party specific thing,” he told CNN’s Manu Raju Tuesday.

How will the Pence revelations affect the new Republican House majority’s effort to skewer Biden?

Republicans in both the Senate and the House have claimed there is one standard for Biden and one for Trump following the discovery of documents in Biden’s home and his former DC office. But the Pence discoveries complicate that equation. How, for example, can House committees run by the GOP investigate the president if they don’t take similar steps against Pence?

We got a clue on Tuesday. House Oversight Chairman James Comer tried to frustrate the White House’s effort to draw comparisons between Biden and Pence. The Kentucky Republican said Pence had agreed to “fully cooperate with congressional oversight and any questions we have about the matter” – a stance he said was in “stark contrast” to the Biden administration’s. But Comer didn’t say a word about Trump, whose transgression in this area – at least from outside the investigation – appear far more broad and serious so far.

Can the White House use the Pence controversy to deflect pressure on Biden?

The White House’s misfiring PR strategy has gotten in the way of its bid to move on from the story. Several times, Biden has tried to downplay the problem – only for more classified material from his residence to show up in searches. The drip-drip of new details made the scandal appear even more damaging for an administration that says it is restoring integrity and transparency. And the botched management of the issue has also handed Trump a huge slice of luck as he tries to fire up his so-far tepid 2024 campaign to win back the White House.

Do other ex-presidents and ex-vice presidents have a document issue?

Given that the documents in the Pence and Biden cases may have been inadvertently taken from the White House, is it possible that other administrations may have a similar problem? And will the National Archives ask former commanders in chief to scrub their homes and offices as a precaution?

Representatives for former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama told CNN on Tuesday that their bosses had turned over all classified material when they left the White House.

What kind of example are Trump, Biden and Pence setting anyway?

Many lower ranking government officials treat classified information with extreme care, bordering on paranoia, in the knowledge that careless or negligent handling of such material – often gathered at high risk by US intelligence assets – could land them in jail. The current controversy over documents going astray suggests that duty of care doesn’t necessarily go right to the top. It may also raise questions over how classified information is handled during presidential transitions out of office. Then there is the perennial conundrum over whether the government stamps “top secret” on too many of its records.

The rolling revelations have caused some stupefaction on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers typically have to enter a secure facility to read secret intelligence.

“Wow,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in response to breaking news about documents found at Pence’s home.

“Holy heck,” added Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I would have thought that a year ago when this started coming that anyone who had one of these jobs would go back and check. Check your closets.”

CNN’s Jamie Gangel, Evan Perez, Lauren Fox and Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.

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