How much trouble is “Docugate going to bring to the Biden White House? My bet right now is ultimately, not that much. It’s kind of hard to imagine Joe Biden, or nearly any longtime public servant of either party who has spent a career getting access to classified documents and having the rules and laws explained to them, being told by an aide that scattered classified documents were found among his papers and saying, “Eh, so what?” So I would hope and think that some classified documents on Topic X somehow got mixed in with other papers, and it was all a mistake, and it won’t take a special counsel too long to confirm all this.
Still: It’s been embarrassing, politically, for the Biden White House, which has handled the matter pretty badly. It looks, at best, sloppy. And it comes at a time when the Biden team was gearing up to announce for reelection with some wind at his back. That wind is now blowing in his face because of this, and it probably complicates in the minds of many Democrats the question of whether he should seek reelection.
Besides which, possession of such documents is against the law depending on the circumstances. The relevant section of the U.S. Code uses the word “knowingly.” In fact, it’s worth quoting: “Whoever … knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.” So for this to rise to the level of a crime, these documents will have to have been removed with knowledge and intent.
Even so, it’s hard to think of a development that is more tailor-made for the demagogues of today’s right. Demagogues use two basic tactics politically. First, they project—that is, whatever they themselves are guilty of doing, they accuse the other side of doing it. This is the old Goebbels playbook, and it works a depressing percentage of the time.
The second thing they do is attack the opponent’s strength and try to turn it into a weakness. This doesn’t go back to Goebbels. It’s fairly new. It’s what the Republicans, led by Karl Rove, did to John Kerry in 2004, to turn him from a war hero (he won a Purple Heart in Vietnam) into a coward and traitor. There was a hefty dose of projection in that one too, since George W. Bush had spent his Vietnam years in Texas. But the main point was to take away Kerry’s one unassailable credential, which to the right wing of course was very assailable because Kerry was such a vocal war critic, and it was pinkos like him who “lost” Vietnam.
Both of those are happening here in a huge way. Donald Trump did knowingly and with intent steal classified documents; he also refused to return them. Whether the law catches up with him is another question, but that he broke said law is obvious. Republicans know this. And they’re doing precisely what history tells us demagogues do in these situations: They’re accusing Biden of doing what Trump did. And it’s very handy for them that they get to go after Biden’s greatest perceived strength—his integrity as a human being and as a public servant. That’s what all the Hunter Biden stuff is about—it is, or will be, the attempted swift-boating of Joe Biden.
So far, this is a page from the Authoritarian Demagoguery 101 syllabus. But since Donald Trump is involved, it’s even more psychologically twisted.
Republicans sold their souls to a man with no morality, no virtue, and no loyalty to anyone or anything except himself. On some level, they know this, and, on some level, they, or a good number of them, are privately ashamed. Or so one hopes.
Now you and I, if we sold our souls to such a man, we might at some point come clean and perform penance and seek forgiveness. But that’s not how Republicans roll. Publicly, they don’t do shame. They emerge from a situation that would induce shame in a normal person and embrace shame’s opposite.
Which is … well, the online Merriam Webster thesaurus lists only two antonyms for shame, and they’re both polysyllabic jumbles: impenitence and remorselessness. Not graceful words, but they do make the point. The Republicans’ public posture vis-à-vis Trump is and will be one of utter remorselessness. Even if they give up on him in 2024 and nominate someone else, they will never, ever apologize for him. And the more guilt they feel, the more they will attack. The internal logic of this reality, then, is that the worse Trump behaves, the more they will defend him, the more they will attack his critics, and the more they project his crimes onto others.
Thus we have James Comer of Kentucky, the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper over the weekend that he was only interested in pursuing Biden and had zero curiosity about investigating Trump. Not only that, Trump, he said—Trump!—is the victim of a double standard here. Drink this in:
My concern is how there’s such a discrepancy in how former President Trump was treated by raiding Mar-a-Lago, by getting the security cameras, by taking pictures of documents on the floor.… That’s not equal treatment, and we’re very concerned, and there’s a lack of trust here at the Department of Justice by House Republicans. That’s the outrage.
Yes, there’s a discrepancy all right, but maybe it’s because Biden’s lawyers turned over the documents immediately upon finding them, while Trump spent several months rebuffing the FBI’s polite requests to come down to Mar-a-Lago and have a look around. Comer’s apprehension of reality mimics that of an East German judge during the Cold War–era Olympics, who saw a reality that was the opposite of the one everyone else saw.
This is why Docugate will be a political problem for Biden in the short term: Republicans will make a lot of noise, and the White House, because the matter is under investigation, won’t really be able to respond.
But perhaps paradoxically, I believe it’s also why it shouldn’t be a problem in the long term (unless, of course, evidence of genuine wrongdoing on Biden’s part emerges). As the facts come out, people will see that the reality of the situation has nothing to do with the “reality” the Republicans are attempting to describe. And this brings us to a final point to keep in mind here.
When a story like this breaks, conservatives go into full attack mode, the press follows the scent, and liberals reach for the smelling salts and think it’s curtains. But it rarely works out that way.
In 2008, Barack Obama was supposed to be doomed after Jeremiah Wright. The now completely forgotten late-breaking story of Obama’s aunt who was in the United States illegally was supposed to do Obama in. Hunter’s laptop was supposed to ruin Joe Biden in 2020. I could go on and on. (Anyone remember Whitewater?) Only in the case of Hillary Clinton’s email server did enough voters buy into the right-wing narrative, but there were special circumstances there—James Comey’s late intercession in the race and the 25 years the right spent vilifying her.
Most voters, given enough time, can see reality for what it is and make distinctions between Biden’s behavior here and Trump’s. This is why the special counsel may well end up helping Biden. If the Biden documents got there by accident, Robert Hur will affirm that, and most Americans will believe it. It won’t stop our East German judges from doing what they do; but look how East Germany ended up.