Pence documents scramble calculus for 2024 field

How the classified documents found at the homes of Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Mike Pence could reshape the presidential race.

Former Vice President Mike Pence
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The discovery of classified documents at former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana mansion has campaign veterans gaming out how the issue will shape the race for the White House next year.

Pence is now the third likely presidential contender who possessed sensitive documents. Last August, the FBI executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida. The Department of Justice then named a special counsel to investigate Trump, putting the GOP frontrunner in yet more legal jeopardy.

In a September interview with “60 Minutes,” President Biden castigated Trump for his handling of the secret documents. “How that could possibly happen, how anyone could be that irresponsible?” Biden said.

In early January, however, CBS News reported that roughly 10 classified documents left over from Biden’s time as vice president had been found in November at a Biden-affiliated think tank in Washington, D.C. In the weeks since, lawyers and investigators have found more classified documents in Biden’s Delaware residence and garage.

The Penn Biden Center
The Penn Biden Center. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, announced earlier this month that the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, would investigate Biden’s “mishandling” of the documents. But the GOP’s victory lap proved short-lived: On Tuesday, Pence’s lawyer said classified documents had been found in the former vice president’s home and turned over to the FBI.

With three leading White House contenders now dealing with similar scandals, political operatives are trying to figure out what this means for the presidential race.

“This weekend will be very busy across America, with every senator, House member, former executive branch bigwig spending quality time with their families while rummaging through their desks, basements, attics and garages searching for material for their fireplaces, wood stoves and shredders,” veteran New Hampshire Republican operative David Carney told Yahoo News.

On Thursday, CNN reported that the National Archives had sent a letter to the staffs of former presidents and vice presidents requesting that they do just what Carney predicted — rummage through their belongings to find any misplaced classified documents.

The tone of the request from the National Archives was markedly different from last summer, when FBI agents searched Trump’s Florida mansion after months of getting the runaround from the former president and his lawyers (potentially paving the way for obstruction of justice charges).

The United States National Archives
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Much of that likely has to do with how Biden's and Pence’s lawyers approached the issue, cooperating with federal investigators and relinquishing documents, instead of moving them and falsely claiming in legal statements that no classified documents were in their possession.

But Trump may stand to gain from the discovery of Pence’s documents. The former president leaped to Pence’s defense this week, calling him an “innocent man” who “never did anything knowingly dishonest in his entire life.” It was a change in tone for Trump, who has castigated his former vice president repeatedly in the years since Pence refused to go along with Trump’s attempts to throw out the results of the 2020 election.

Rick Wilson, a veteran ad man and Trump antagonist, said the Pence revelations make it a perplexing issue for the 2024 race. “At this point it's like, ‘Who didn’t take classified documents home with them?’” he said.

But others see it as splitting the presidential field into two groups: those who are facing legal jeopardy over the issue and those who aren’t.

“This new discovery further muddies the waters for several presidential candidates who have been caught in the net of the story. For a period of time, this issue will be part of the national discussion, and negatively for Biden, Pence and Trump,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

“Candidates who emerge who are not caught up in this embarrassing or potentially legally harmful situation have won the day,”

When Pence’s memoir was published in November, he flatly told ABC News that he “did not” leave the White House with classified documents. But he altered his answer a few months later, stepping back from an out-and-out denial in an interview with CBS News.

Former Vice President Mike Pence
Former Vice President Mike Pence in an interview with the Associated Press. (John Minchillo/AP)

Pence’s team says the issue won’t damage his standing.

“He’s an Eagle Scout, who had a great plan and team around him. If it can happen to Mike Pence, it can happen to anyone,” former Pence spokesman Marc Lotter told Yahoo News.

In his reply to the National Archives, sent Jan. 22, Pence lawyer Greg Jacob wrote, “The Vice President has requested that I convey his thanks to you for your responsiveness and professionalism throughout your handling of this matter.”

But recent history suggests that an ongoing scandal involving the possession of sensitive information could prove damaging to any candidate.

Handling of government documents became a central issue that Trump and Republicans used to define Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, leading Trump and his supporters to chant “Lock her up!” throughout the campaign.

“I bet her head is exploding,” longtime Clinton aide Paul Begala told Yahoo News after reading about Pence’s classified documents. “My head is exploding.”