The stories of documents being found in the possession of a former president, a former vice president, and the current president have evolved such that they seem to be three iterations of the same story. In fact, despite similarities between the three, one situation is very different from the other two. That story, the bombshell, if you will, is not about documents misplaced or mishandled. It is about documents stolen, norms destroyed, guidelines ignored, and the fourth, fifth, or hundredth-time former President Trump has broken the law, endangered our national security, cheated, lied, delayed, and distracted. Whataboutism and a determination to be uber-fair allow Trump and his allies to hide behind the two other situations which, despite some similarities, are very different. And, while we don’t yet know everything about the Biden and Pence situations, we do know that they behaved according to protocol and law when documents were found, while Trump leaned into his time-tested strategy of dissemble, distract, and delay.

Government officials knew at least 18 months ago that the former president still had not returned documents that he was, by law, supposed to return. They asked nicely, two, three, or four times, got a subpoena, and finally had to go to a judge to get a legal warrant for the FBI to enter Mar-a-Lago and recover documents that Mr. Trump refused to return. He employed his often-used slow-roll, deny, and lie strategies to lead government officials in the wrong direction: he had his lawyer issue a false declaration that all documents had been returned, he returned the documents in small batches, he claimed these were his personal documents (they were not), and he insisted he had a right to take them (he did not). He went so far as to find a judge who had even less standing than she had scruples, to further delay return of the stolen documents — at least until a higher court, with a majority of Trump-appointed judges, overruled her. This is a story about stolen documents and repeated obstruction of efforts to get those documents back.

Government documents have been found in President Biden’s former office and in his residence. The documents should not have been in either place. His attorneys advised the appropriate government agencies, returned the documents, and worked with authorities to search other locations. No documents were found in subsequent searches. Biden and his lawyers have cooperated every step of the way. This is a story about mishandled documents.

Then, more government documents were found in former Vice President Pence’s home. Those documents should not have been there. Mr. Pence’s lawyers notified the appropriate agencies and returned the documents. Mr. Pence has, subsequently, cooperated every step of the way to find and return any other documents. This is also a story about mishandled documents.

All of this clearly highlights that there are problems in the way government documents are handled, and those problems must be addressed. People, some of them very senior, have mishandled classified documents for years. None of them claimed ownership of official documents, none has refused to return the documents, and none has employed so many and such varied strategies to try to keep the documents for their private use. No one until Trump.

Biden and Pence had papers in their homes and offices, but at this time, there is no evidence that they are guilty of any intentional criminality. In fact, their actions are distractions from the real issue here: Trump’s theft, his obstruction, and his ultimately failed attempts to keep the documents for his personal use.

Trump’s MO of constant assault on all things normal and legal has been a threat to our national security since before his was elected. Looking for a “400-pound mystery hacker on his bed,” instead of Russian intelligence officers. Choosing Vladimir Putin’s version of truth over that of his own intelligence community. Refusing to let anyone join his meetings with senior Russian or North Korean leadership. Sending Bill Barr out to undercut one story, Russian influence on the 2016 election, and then to invent a new one: investigating the investigators.

Trump’s behavior and focus have weakened U.S. institutions and guardrails. As he has done with his own businesses for decades, President Trump skirted accepted protocols and hired lawyers to delay, distract, and ignore the will of the people. He tried to keep things that were not his — from the documents to the presidency.

The teachable moment here is that when guardrails are broken so often and so completely, breaking the law is the natural next step. There is no evidence that either Biden or Pence lied about having the documents, claimed to own them,or tried to block their return. Trump did all of those things. He knew he had the documents and then obstructed justice so he could keep them. He claimed he had declassified the papers, and he insisted they were his because when he packed them, he was still president. Once he claimed to have packed them up, he proved intent, that he knew he had them, believed he owned them, and meant to keep them. Trump’s arrogance is boundless, and his ignorance is astonishing, but as we know from decades of Dragnet, ignorance of the law is no defense.

As Trump has always done, he refused to play by the rules, refused to follow the law, ignored all efforts to have the documents returned, and refused to accept regulations put in place to protect the country and its citizens. He hid the truth to obscure his guilt. And we must understand that Trump’s purposeful assault on laws and protocols, his obstruction, and his dishonesty are the primary — maybe the only relevant — issues in this story. This is not mishandling — this is theft. Trump stole the documents, and we must understand and assess accountability in that context. His is a story about broken guardrails, theft, lies, and obstruction. Period.


Margaret Henoch retired from the Senior Intelligence Service, Directorate of Operations, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after 24 years. Ms. Henoch served in CIA HQ and overseas and retired from a Chief of Station position. Before joining the CIA, Ms. Henoch worked at SRI, International, based in Menlo Park, California, as an analyst of technical capabilities of Soviet weapons systems.