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It’s a Conspiracy!
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It’s a Conspiracy!

The search for meaning in the Biden documents fiasco.

U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/ Getty Images)

It was Oscar Wilde who said, “To lose one batch of classified documents may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose a second looks like carelessness.”

That may not be verbatim. I’m quoting from memory.

Accurate or not, it’s apropos for Thursday’s news that another tranche of classified material has turned up in a private space belonging to the president of the United States. The first tranche was discovered on November 2, 2022, by Joe Biden’s lawyers in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., where he maintained an office during his years out of office. On Thursday we learned that a separate tranche was found on December 20 in the garage attached to Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware.

Oh, and a third tranche—consisting of a single document—was found in a room adjacent to the garage, the White House has now admitted.

If losing two sets of classified material looks like carelessness, losing three sets might amount to recklessness. One shudders to think how losing a fourth set would be characterized. Perhaps we’ll find out before much longer, as the revelations are coming quickly.

The mystery driving this story boils down to one word: Why? Why, Joe?

What was he doing with that stuff?

Motive is less of a mystery in the case of Trump departing the White House with trunkfuls of classified documents, some of them top secret. A few critics reacted to news of the Mar-a-Lago search last summer with dark suspicions about him selling state secrets to Vladimir Putin or the Saudis, but those theories have faded in time. The consensus has settled on a mundane explanation: He wanted the documents because he wanted them, because he’s spent his life taking the things he wants and sees no reason to treat public property any differently. If a document ended up in his hands in the Oval Office and captured his fancy for whatever reason then he considered it his document to keep. A privilege of the king, if you will.

He didn’t take stuff with him hoping for a payoff from Mohammed bin Salman. (That’s what golf tournaments are for.) More likely is that he took it with him because he wanted a way to impress people like Kanye West and Nick Fuentes the next time he has them over for dinner. “Here’s the Pentagon’s secret plan to take out North Korea’s missile silos. Cool, huh?”

The Trump case is straightforward. The Biden case? That’s more of a head scratcher.

And because it is, observers across the spectrum are grasping at colorful theories to explain what’s really going on here.

Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The simplest explanation for Biden bringing home classified documents is that they got mixed in accidentally with non-classified material when he and his staff were packing up his office. Biden was, after all, vice president; there were doubtless many classified documents floating around his official spaces. It’s easy to imagine how a few might have slipped through the cracks.

That’s probably what happened. But that theory is unsatisfying.

It’s unsatisfying, for starters, because we live in an era in which civic trust is declining. When trust is high, incompetence is more acceptable as an excuse for a politician screwing up. When trust is low, nothing short of an ulterior motive will do. Those documents in Biden’s garage must have been put there deliberately for some nefarious reason. Jim Jordan will get to the bottom of it.

It’s also unsatisfying because Team Biden has handled this mini-crisis abysmally, beginning with the president himself. Imagine having had weeks in advance to wargame your spin for the document revelations only to resort to “Chillax, they were locked up with my ‘Vette.”

The documents at Mar-a-Lago weren’t sitting out on the street either, Joe. If Biden’s standard for securing classified material is as flimsy as placing them behind a locked door then I’m not sure why he thought Trump’s behavior was so “irresponsible.”

On Thursday night CNN published a lengthy story in which multiple former Biden aides sought to account—anonymously—for how the documents ended up in unsecured private spaces. That account turns out to be pitiful in every respect, from CNN’s credulous treatment of its sources to the aides feebly insisting that Biden’s busy schedule in his final weeks as vice president kept them distracted from proper archiving. If he hadn’t been such a conscientious public servant working up to the very last minute on behalf of the people, maybe they wouldn’t have overlooked those documents.

Former aides and others familiar with the process of Biden’s transition out of government service describe a serious effort to follow the law made difficult by an unusually active final stretch.

“That made the process very disjointed – not because people weren’t capable, but because it wasn’t some straight line out of the White House,” a source with direct knowledge of the process said. “The day-to-day almost accelerated in those final days. Throughout, people were trying to ensure he still had what he needed, while also trying to pack in moments he wasn’t there.”

In just the final five days of his vice presidency, Biden met in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and in Switzerland with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He spoke by phone with the prime minister of Iraq two days before leaving office. And earlier in the week he held calls with the president of Kosovo and the prime minister of Japan. As his team worked in Washington to ensure all the classified material in his offices were properly packed and submitted to the government, more classified documents continued to arrive.

Mike Pence had an eventful final few weeks in office too but I don’t recall him running into any snafus in returning classified material. And unlike Biden, Pence didn’t know until early November that he’d be leaving office on January 20. (Realistically, he didn’t know until January 6.) Biden, being term-limited as vice president, knew his departure date literally years in advance. Why didn’t he prepare better for it?

It would be useful to know the dates on the documents found in his office and garage. If they were dated shortly before January 20, 2017, it becomes more plausible that late-arriving classified material got swept up in packing before it could be turned over. If they were dated long before January 20, 2017, that’s less plausible. Stay tuned.

The malpractice doesn’t end there, though. I can’t understand why the White House didn’t disclose that a second tranche of documents had been found when it admitted earlier this week that the first tranche had been found on November 2. They’ve known about the second tranche since December 20; it would have been less painful to acknowledge everything in a single announcement than to let the media dribble out revelations of more documents day by day. It was bad enough that Team Biden didn’t cop to the first tranche until after the midterm election. Now they’ve compounded their shadiness by holding back needlessly about the second tranche.

All in all, it’s a political fiasco. “I think it takes the whole Trump scandal off the table,” one glum Democratic operative told Politico. In one fell swoop, Biden handed House Republicans a club to beat him with and all but forced Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel, one who may or may not embark on a fishing expedition that turns up other forms of wrongdoing. Friday afternoon brought news that the congressional investigations have already begun, in fact.

Why, there’s even a potential Hunter Biden angle here. James Comer must feel like a kid in a candy store. 

None of this gets us closer to solving our mystery, though. Why did Biden take the documents? The motive remains uncertain. We’re caught, for the moment, in an informational vacuum.

And political nature abhors a vacuum.

In the absence of hard facts about a motive, half-assed partisan conspiracy theorizing will have to do.

Fortunately, half-assed partisan conspiracy theories are America’s specialty, particularly in the age of Trump.

But whereas normally one can predict from a given set of facts how kooks will construct a conspiratorial narrative out of it, reaction to the Biden documents has brought a pleasant surprise in the variety of kookiness offered to explain the revelations.

Some of it was predictable. For instance, a few members of the mostly liberal panel on The View thought they spied the sinister hand of Republican saboteurs at work, keen to change the subject from Trump’s own egregious mishandling of classified info.

At least one Democratic member of Congress shared those suspicions.

It’s a fine theory, but imagining that the GOP could infiltrate not just the Penn Biden Center but Joe Biden’s own home to plant documents undetected assumes a level of competence far beyond what the modern right seems capable of. The Nixon-era Republican Party might have been capable of that. If the Trump-era Republican Party wanted to tie Biden to missing classified documents, it would simply invent a rumor out of whole cloth that he has nuclear secrets stashed in his home and trust conservatives to accept it uncritically.

It’s worked before, right?

Another flaw in the theory that Republicans planted the documents is that it assumes the institutional GOP still wants to protect Trump. In reality, figures like Mitch McConnell, Ronna McDaniel, and Ron DeSantis were surely hoping that the Mar-a-Lago documents saga would further spook Republican voters newly anxious about Trump’s political “baggage” after last year’s midterm debacle. Now that Biden is saddled with a documents saga of his own, that baggage has lightened considerably. The GOP is more likely today to renominate its albatross in 2024 than it was a week ago, no doubt to the quiet consternation of many party officials. Although maybe DeSantis, at least, can still salvage a useful line of attack from it.

Liberals aren’t the only faction floating conspiracies to explain classified documents turning up in Biden’s home.

The most popular theory on the right is that Biden must be selling state secrets to China given that the Penn Biden Center rakes in big bucks from Beijing. The problem: It’s apparently not true. The University of Pennsylvania does receive millions in Chinese funding, but so do lots of American universities. And there’s no evidence that the Penn Biden Center got a cut of UPenn’s haul. “The assertion that the Penn Biden Center received $54 million from China is total nonsense,” a university spokesman told Newsweek. “The Penn Biden Center has never solicited or received any gifts from any Chinese or other foreign entity.”

If Biden were selling secrets to China, it’s unclear to me why he’d have aging classified material left over from his vice presidential days still sitting in his garage. Wouldn’t he have disposed of it once he sold it? If he hasn’t sold it yet, when was he planning to? How useful can it be at this point? Also, if Biden is a Chinese asset, why does he keep rattling his saber over Taiwan and using hardball tactics to choke off China’s ability to produce chips?

There are many reasons to criticize Joe Biden, starting with his handling of classified information. But the “China simp” theory feels less like a considered attack on the merits than conservatives straining to shoehorn him into the old familiar “Democrats are too soft on communists” Cold War narrative.

The Biden-China connection was predictable spin once classified material turned up in his office. Much less predictable, though, and therefore far more interesting are theories coming from the populist right that portray Biden as a victim—sort of—of malign forces on the left.

I did not have “MAGA stars absolve Joe Biden from blame for mishandling state secrets” on my political bingo card.

Nehls is wrong, incidentally; vice presidents can declassify documents. But lay that aside. What are he and Ronny Jackson up to here?

Presumably they’re just making mischief, trying to sow suspicion on the left as to who might have placed the documents in Biden’s home and office—never mind that it was his own lawyers who are said to have uncovered the documents. But here again, the alleged conspiracy makes no sense. Why would Democrats want to get rid of Joe Biden now? They enjoyed a shockingly successful midterm on his watch. His average approval rating is the highest it’s been in more than a year. He just touched 50 percent approval in a poll of registered voters for the first time in ages. And if he were to resign in disgrace tomorrow, he’d be replaced by a far less electable figure in Kamala Harris.

Granted, he’s older than the sun. But the Methuselah of American politics remains the best bet of his politically impoverished party to win the White House in 2024, at least as of January 2023.

Why on Earth would they sabotage him?

The reason none of these conspiracy theories make sense is because they’re not earnest attempts to explain why documents turned up in Biden’s home and office.

And I don’t mean that in the usual sense of accusing partisan hacks of partisan hackery to help their team. I mean that they’re resorting to conspiracy theories, I suspect, for the same reason people typically resort to conspiracy theories, to cope with unpleasant realities by substituting a more psychologically comforting explanation.

If it terrifies you that 19 jihadists could kill thousands of people while operating under the nose of the U.S. government, it might comfort you to believe instead that the government itself conspired to kill those people and then framed Muslim patsies for the attack. Better that the government be murderous but in control than that it be powerless to protect us from mass death.

Maybe the same dynamic is at play in America’s dueling document scandals. It’s bad enough that Trump would put national security at risk by making off with scores of sensitive documents, but everyone expects that from him at this point. He’s a malign doofus surrounded by malign doofuses. Team Biden, however, was supposed to be “the adults in the room,” the old pros who take their civic responsibilities seriously. You could count on them not to lose control of national secrets. Until you couldn’t. Twice. At least.

We’re not sending our best to govern these days. It’s more comforting in a way to believe that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are each victims of plots by sinister yet competent enemies than to face the awful truth that we’re led by nincompoops. 

I think Biden is likely to skate on criminal charges for his malfeasance. Unless more comes out, he’s certainly not guilty of worse than what Hillary Clinton was guilty of. And because Biden is likely to skate, Trump is likely to skate too—even though, by insistently withholding documents from the feds despite dogged efforts to get them back, he really is guilty of something meaningfully worse. When the smoke clears, we’ll have set a legal precedent in which high officials can abscond with sensitive material without fear of prosecution, even if they resist recovery by the federal government. That’s what government by nincompoops gets us.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.