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US politics

Biden’s secrets are not like Trump’s

Tom Cruise laying down the law in Top Gun (1986)

The revelation that Joe Biden kept classified documents from his time as vice president – just as Donald Trump did after leaving the White House – was “pure manna” for conservatives, says Jonathan Chait in Intelligencer. Republican lawmakers demanded to know why FBI agents hadn’t raided Biden’s home, as they had Mar-a-Lago. The Wall Street Journal wondered whether liberals would now realise why their criticism of Trump was so “ridiculous”. But the two cases are completely different. The reason Trump is facing criminal charges isn’t because he kept secret documents – it’s because he refused to hand them over and allegedly “took steps to hide them from the FBI”. Biden’s lawyers, by contrast, came clean the moment they found his docs and “turned them over immediately”.

Either way, says Matthew Connelly in The New York Times, America’s “national secrecy complex” has grown totally out of control. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has entered office promising to be more transparent, and left it with more secrets buried. Lyndon Johnson “quietly sabotaged” the Freedom of Information Act; Jimmy Carter came up with a new classification (“royal”) for top-tier material. Even the government’s $18bn-a-year watchdog for classified material has given up trying to keep track of everything. The problem is that presidents have the “fully sovereign” right to classify or declassify whatever they want – an authority that, almost uniquely in American politics, has “almost no effective checks or balances”. It’s a power they clearly find “intoxicating”.