The document that separates Biden and Trump

One of the many problems with having former President Donald Trump around is that it becomes extremely difficult to assess normal misbehavior. It’s a significant reminder of how Trump continues to corrupt the nation’s politics. That, so far at least, is the story behind the revelation that President Joe Biden improperly had classified documents at a think tank office and in his Delaware home. It’s impossible to discuss this properly without mentioning the many ways in which what Biden apparently did is nothing like what Trump did.

There is still much that we don’t know about the Biden incidents, and it certainly deserves a thorough investigation. But the crucial difference is plain: Trump has claimed to be above the law when it comes to classified materials, while Biden has said that he will fully cooperate with an investigation into the matter.

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Trump has publicly attacked the process from the start. He didn’t voluntarily hand over anything to the National Archives and instead has fought the agency every step of the way to retain documents the government knew were missing. Biden’s team, in contrast, voluntarily turned over items that the archives weren’t aware of. And Trump appears to have retained far more documents, and handled them far more cavalierly, than Biden did. I won’t speculate on the legal consequences. But presidents swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” and have the responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The core principle of constitutional government is the rule of law; that’s why the presidential oath is to protect the Constitution, not the nation or the land or its people.

For a former president (and now presidential candidate) to publicly claim that the law doesn’t apply to him is a far worse offense, and far more disqualifying for future office, than almost anything that could be done with classified information. And that is what Trump has repeatedly done, whether by claiming executive privilege to defend his possession of classified materials or with his assertion of “absolute immunity” from lawsuits, or simply in how he regularly dismisses the legitimacy of judges and prosecutors who apply the law to him.

While we don’t want to assess Biden based only on the extremely low bar of doing better than Trump, as long as Trump remains on the scene (and retains millions of supporters), it isn’t just a natural comparison, but a necessary one.

When Biden makes a false claim, as he has been known to do throughout his career including as president, we shouldn’t dismiss it just because Trump did worse. But we also should keep in mind that all politicians make that sort of error at times, and if Biden does it more often than many, he is still nothing like Trump.

We don’t yet know why classified documents turned up at Biden’s home and office. It could be the result of minor filing mistakes by others that Biden handled well once someone realized the error. Or it could be something worse. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision to appoint a special counsel to look into the matter might turn out to be overkill, but it’s another reminder, along with Biden’s pledge of cooperation with the probe, that in this administration the president isn’t above the law.

The comparison to Trump is useful not because it underscores that everyone makes mistakes, but because it reminds us what disregard for the rule of law really looks like. At the same time, it doesn’t absolve Biden from what he has done.