NEW YORK — Everything was pretty much going well for President Joe Biden as the year began.
His approval ratings were rising, inflation was slowing and Republicans were at war with each other after a disappointing midterm election season, while Democrats rallied behind Biden and his likely re-election campaign.
However, the political landscape for Biden veered into more uncertain territory on Thursday, after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Democratic president’s handling of documents with confidentiality seals.
Democrats have admitted publicly and privately that the astonishing event was, at best, an unwanted distraction at an inopportune time that clouded the case against Donald Trump. The former Republican president is facing a special prosecutor of his own and is under federal criminal investigation for his handling of documents with confidentiality seals and other possible transgressions.
There are big differences between the two cases. In particular, there is nothing to indicate that Biden deliberately tried to prevent documents discovered in his home or office from being released or that he was even aware of his presence. Trump, who is under investigation for potentially obstructing investigators, also had many more secret documents in his possession.
However, the appointment of a special prosecutor creates legal uncertainty about the current president and could revive the debate among Democrats about whether he seeks a second term.
“No one is going to say this is profitable,” said James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s pretty evident that’s not the case.”
As Democrats retreated to a defensive position, Trump’s potential Republican challengers in 2024 acknowledged that the shape of the upcoming race had changed.
Trump “is the luckiest man in American politics,” said John Bolton, a national security adviser during the Trump administration who is considering a Republican run for the White House. “This should be disqualifying for both.”
Thus begins a rocky election season in which both the current and former presidents of the United States are under investigation by special prosecutors as they prepare for a possible retaliation in 2024. Many voters in both parties were already calling for a new generation of leadership to emerge in the nascent presidential contest. These calls are now getting louder.
“On many political fronts, Biden’s touted 2024 campaign is potentially vulnerable,” said Norman Solomon, a progressive Democrat who leads the so-called Don’t Run Joe campaign, which already airs anti-Biden television ads. in key states. “Democrats and the country as a whole would be much better off this year and next if he doesn’t run for president.”
The 80-year-old president has already indicated that he plans to seek a second term, but he has yet to make a final decision. His allies believe he is likely to make a formal announcement after the end of March.
So far, at least, no high-profile Democrats seem willing to challenge Biden in a potential presidential primary contest. Privately, however, some Democratic officials believe the new federal investigation may help motivate a rival candidate.
One of Biden’s potential challengers, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, recently told The Associated Press that he would make a decision on his 2024 intentions “at the appropriate time.” Nina Turner, who chaired Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said after Thursday’s announcement that she hopes a “freedom-fighting progressive” will put up a primary challenge against Biden in 2024.
“The American people certainly deserve better options — Republicans and Democrats —,” added Turner, who applauded the administration’s decision to review Biden’s handling of documents with confidentiality seals in the same way it investigates Trump. “We should not be forced to accept these men.”
Garland’s appointment of a special counsel followed Biden’s admission Thursday morning that confidentially-sealed documents from his time as President Barack Obama’s vice president were found in the garage of his Delaware home and in his personal library, plus documents already discovered in a locked cabinet in an office he used after leaving the White House.
Garland said Biden’s lawyers informed the Justice Department Thursday morning about the discovery of a secret document at Biden’s home, after FBI agents recovered other documents from the garage in December.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden said he was cooperating “fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review.”
“People know I take confidentiality-sealed documents and classified material seriously,” Biden added. “My Corvette is in a closed garage,” she added.
Clearly, there are stark differences between the cases, including the volume of documents discovered and the severity of the grand jury’s ongoing investigation into the case at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, estate.
Approximately 300 documents marked secret were recovered from Mar-a-Lago, a private club that constantly hosts events. The search of Trump’s property was the culmination of months of back and forth between the administration and Trump’s representatives, who repeatedly resisted returning the missing documents. And the Justice Department says the confidentially-sealed documents were “probably hidden and removed” from a storage room as part of what they say was an effort to obstruct the federal investigation.
A search warrant showed the FBI investigating crimes, including the willful withholding of national defense information and efforts to obstruct the federal investigation.
However, Trump has seized on the news and seeks to use it to undermine the investigation into his actions.
“It’s over,” Trump said in an interview with Mark Levin, a conservative radio host on Thursday night. “When all these documents started coming out and Biden had them, it really changed the complexion and the intensity that they showed me because, you know, what they did is… I’m not saying much worse, I didn’t do anything wrong, what they did not well. What they did is wrong.”
Some Democrats were hopeful, but not certain, that voters could distinguish between Biden’s cooperative approach involving a small stack of documents he apparently possessed in error, and what federal prosecutors described as the deliberate obfuscation of hundreds of secrets. governments by Trump.
“There’s all the difference in the world between having something you don’t know you have and having something you know you have and you’re not supposed to have,” Carville said. “Isn’t a third of the country going to notice that? It probably is.”
Bolton, a fierce critic of Trump, predicted that the significant legal differences between the two cases would “be lost in the mist.” Now, he finds it hard to believe that Trump could be prosecuted for the Mar-a-Lago documents regardless of the circumstances.
“I don’t see how a criminal case is going at this point,” Bolton said. “I just think it’s a huge cloud hanging over the prosecution.”
While the landscape may have changed, Trump’s legal challenges are not going away.
Two months ago, Garland appointed Jack Smith, a former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor, to lead investigations into the confidentiality-sealed documents discovered at Mar-a-Lago, as well as key aspects of a separate investigation involving the insurrection of January 6, 2021 and the efforts to annul the 2020 elections.
Federal prosecutors have focused especially on a scheme by Trump allies to enlarge the number of fake voters in key swing states Biden won as a way to subvert the vote. They issued subpoenas to several state chairmen from the Republican Party.
Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist, described the latest development as “certainly not ideal.”
“I think everyone wishes this hadn’t happened, including the president,” he admitted. “But it’s important to keep all of this in context: President Biden is seen by everyone as a much more responsible figure than Donald Trump. And that cannot be forgotten.”
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