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Pence Discovery Elevates Document Drama From Partisan Squabbling to Systemic Concern

Vice President Micheal Pence poses for his official portrait at The White House, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

The revelation that Vice President Mike Pence was also in possession of classified documents added a new dynamic to partisan feuding over the issue that has emerged in recent weeks.

The revelation that classified documents were found in the possession of former Vice President Mike Pence delivered a reprieve to recent partisan finger-pointing over the handling of materials by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, instead reframing the discussion as one of a flaw in the system more broadly.

“You got Trump, you got Pence, you got Biden,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Clearly we have a problem here. … What became a political problem for Republicans is now a national security problem for the country.”

Reports surfaced on Tuesday that Pence’s lawyer alerted the National Archives in a letter last week to his possession of the documents, which were “inadvertently” boxed and taken to his home as he was leaving office and discovered as part of a search triggered by the recent discovery of classified materials at the former office and home of Biden that was conducted out of an abundance of caution. But the discovery led some to question whether the system for handling government secrets is functioning properly.

Already the situation appears to have taken some pressure off of the White House, which has drawn a stark line between Biden’s and Trump’s cooperation with authorities.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who has shied away from most questions about the documents in recent weeks, still deflected questions to the White House counsel’s office and the Department of Justice in Tuesday’s press briefing. But the focus of questions was away from Biden directly, geared more toward the protection of sensitive information as a whole.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both parties were generally befuddled on Tuesday at what’s quickly becoming a pattern of possession of the documents, as they drew on the congressional protocols for viewing classified documents, which limits their review to areas called Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs.

“I never knew it was possible to take classified documents out of the SCIF,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday. “Most of us don’t think there’s any way of getting it out of the SCIF, much less bringing it to your office or taking it home.”

GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida seemed to share the sentiment, telling reporters that “it makes no sense to me.”

“On the documents I’ve received, there’s a big ‘classified’ thing on there,” he added.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate intelligence committees did not mince words about the national security implications.

“It is a serious matter for any government official to mishandle classified documents,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, wrote in a tweet. “I plan to ask for the same intelligence review and damage assessment to see if there are any national security concerns.”

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Sen. Marco Rubio of Texas, the Democratic chairman and Republican vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, both told reporters on Tuesday that they want more information on the developments in the possession of classified documents.

“I don’t need to know about the criminal investigation,” Rubio said. “But I do need to know, we need to know on an administrative side, about what threat does this pose? How does this happen? Is it part of a systemic failure that needs to be addressed?”

Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the committee, pointed to a “mess of a classification system,” parts of which he says “comes from the dark ages” and “harms national security.”

“We’re getting to the point where, in my view, they’re going to have difficulty classifying what needs to be classified, and they’re going to be overclassifying stuff that shouldn’t be classified,” Wyden told reporters.

The Oregon Democrat added that “the only point I will make is the point that is not in contention, which is President Biden has cooperated voluntarily.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York pointed to the same distinction on Tuesday, saying at a weekly news conference that “there’s a huge difference between how the president handled it and how former President Trump handled it: One cooperated fully with the authorities, the other stonewalled for over a year.”

Indeed, Biden has cooperated with the Justice Department – and Pence appears to be following his lead. But in both cases, the revelation was leaked to reporters, not publicly disclosed.

McConnell noted on Tuesday that the Justice Department has appeared to treat the Biden and Trump situations fairly, since both individuals were assigned special counsel to independently investigate the matter. Whether the same happens for Pence remains to be seen.