The news that former Vice President Mike Pence had classified documents in his home, joining President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, has Capitol Hill wondering what a sweep of all living former presidents’ and vice presidents’ residences and offices would uncover.
The Washington Examiner has reached out to representatives for former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama about whether they have conducted searches for classified documents. All of former President Bill Clinton’s classified materials were properly turned over to the National Archives in accordance with the Presidential Records Act, Clinton’s office told the Washington Examiner.
An Obama spokesperson told Fox News, “We have nothing for you at this time.” Attorney General Merrick Garland has already appointed two separate special counsels to investigate the handling of classified materials by Biden and Trump.
But lawmakers suspect a more systematic problem wherein documents could be found on close inspection.
“I’m guessing if you really did a deep dive, they’re all sitting on stuff they shouldn’t, would be my guess,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) told the Washington Examiner. “I mean, if you look at the most recents, I guess the only one that would need to be in that club now to be scoured would be Obama.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said past presidents and vice presidents should start searching.
“I would have thought … that anyone who served in any of these roles as president and vice president that are still living would say, ‘Go check your closets,'” Warner, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Punchbowl News after the Pence discovery became public.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and other senators pointed to the discrepancies in the way Congress and presidents view classified documents.
“I can hypothesize how this happened,” Kaine told the Washington Examiner. “I think it’s — the executive branch folks access these documents differently than members of Congress, who go into a SCIF and we can’t take our phones; we can’t take notes when we read them.”
“You know, there ought to be some systematic reckoning in the sense of reviewing how our top officials leave their offices,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) added Tuesday in an interview with Washington Examiner. “Clearly, there is some systematic confusion in how these documents are treated. We’re not allowed to take a single document out of the SCIF or even notes on the document. Obviously, the White House works in a different way.”
Both Biden and Trump could benefit politically from the belief that everyone has a classified documents problem.
“I think it’s obviously a system that has not had much formality and protocol to it,” Braun said. “And I think it helps Trump tremendously.”
Biden’s documents at his think tank and residence are from his time as vice president and senator, Trump’s from his term as president. Biden and Pence have both pledged cooperation, while Trump has taken a somewhat more combative posture.
Trump is already a declared candidate for president in 2024. Biden is expected to announce after the State of the Union next month, and Pence is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information became a major issue in 2016 when Trump and Pence were elected.
Overclassification could be a large part of the issue, lawmakers say.
“It is at the point where there is so much out there, it is hard to determine what ought to be classified, and then it is hard to determine what should be declassified,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told the Washington Examiner. “And [Director of National Intelligence] Avril Haines has begun the chore for the first time, first time really, in years and years to work on a bipartisan basis on this.”
“My own experience is there tends to be a significant overclassification — and I know why that happens, too,” Kaine added. “Because an administration is looking at documents, and they’re like, ‘OK, should this be classified or not?’ Well, I could run through all the points and analyze for 20 minutes, or I can just mark it classified.”
Kaine, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president as Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, added that when people are “sort of aware of the overclassification, it probably makes them a little sloppier in the way they handle documents.”
Not everyone was willing to speculate on whether other former presidents might still have access to classified documents.
“I’m gonna stick with what we’re dealing with,” Wyden said.
“I’d say let’s focus on what we have right now,” Kaine responded.
But there was broad consensus that something needs to be done to address the issue.
“I’ve been working on this for years, and Sen. [Jerry] Moran [R-KS] has been with us for some time as well,” Wyden said. “So I give him a lot of credit.”
“We’ll see what happens, but I think since everyone is now indignant about it, and you hadn’t heard anything about it until recently, yeah, who knows around this place, but I’m guessing something will get formalized for future generations,” Braun said.