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Biden’s “No ‘There’ There” Defense Is Hogwash

The president and his allies should stop mischaracterizing the classified documents scandal.
January 24, 2023
Biden’s “No ‘There’ There” Defense Is Hogwash
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Figuring out who did what in the mishandling of classified documents, at Donald Trump’s estate and at President Joe Biden’s home and former office, can be confusing. So it’s natural that Biden and his aides would like to simplify the issue. To reassure the public, they’ve chosen a message that’s supposed to clarify Biden’s innocence: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

Biden and his advisers seem to think that this assurance distinguishes him from Trump, who—unlike Biden—resisted the government’s efforts to recover documents Trump had wrongly taken to Mar-a-Lago.

Biden is completely wrong. The “no ‘there’ there” defense doesn’t distinguish him from Trump. It makes the two cases look alike. It positions Biden, like Trump, as a denier of obvious reality. Biden shouldn’t have had classified records in his home, his garage, or other unauthorized locations. But he did.

The correct defense of Biden is that his infraction is different from Trump’s. What was “there” at Biden’s home was improperly stored classified material. What wasn’t there, as far as we know, was evidence of any effort to prevent classified material from being found and returned. The latter is what prompted the court-authorized FBI search of Mar-a-Lago: months of Trump’s attempts to obstruct recovery of documents he had wrongly retained.

Biden needs to stop pretending there’s nothing there. He needs to speak frankly about what is there.

On Thursday afternoon, at a press conference in California, Biden was asked whether he had any regrets about his management of the controversy over his handling of documents. This was his reply:

We found a handful of documents that were failed—were filed in the wrong place. We immediately turned them over to the [National] Archives and the Justice Department. We’re fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly. I think you’re going to find there’s nothing there. I have no regrets. I’m following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do. It’s exactly what we’re doing. There is no there there.

This wasn’t an off-the-cuff response. Biden was reading from a script that lay on his podium. That’s why he misread the word “filed” as “failed.” The script told him to use the passive voice when describing the improper storage of documents. It also told him to categorically deny that he had done anything wrong. Nothing there. No regrets. No “there” there.

At the time of the press conference, the “no ‘there’ there” position was already untenable. Biden’s lawyers had found documents with classified markings at one of his old private offices, in his home library, and in a garage at the bottom of his driveway. There was literally something there and there and there. And all of it was, to put it mildly, regrettable.

But that wasn’t the nuttiest part of Biden’s answer. The nuttiest part is that he was speaking the day before the FBI—at his invitation—came to search his home for more documents. At 9:45 on Friday morning, FBI personnel began to scour his house in Wilmington. It took them more than 12 hours. According to a spokesman for the special counsel investigating Biden’s handling of documents, it was a “planned, consensual search.” Biden’s personal attorney explained that “by agreement with DOJ, representatives of both [Biden’s] personal legal team and the White House Counsel’s Office were present.”

That’s a lot of prior coordination. So it’s inconceivable that by Thursday afternoon, Biden didn’t know the search was about to happen. Yet he stood there and read a prepared statement that said there was “nothing there.”

Sure enough, the FBI did find something there. On Saturday, Biden’s lawyer announced that during the search, DOJ “took possession of . . . six items consisting of documents with classification markings.”

You might suppose that after this embarrassment, Biden’s allies would drop the “no there there” defense. But you would be wrong.

On Sunday, Biden’s closest ally in Congress, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, appeared on ABC’s This Week. The interviewer, Martha Raddatz, pointed out that the FBI’s search on Friday had discredited Biden’s latest assurance.

“There’s no ‘there’ there.” Those were the president’s words this week when he was asked about the classified documents found over the last few months at his Delaware residence and a private office in Washington, D.C. But this morning, it turns out there is even more there than first thought.

Raddatz was noting the absurdity of Biden’s statement. In the context of classified documents, when you say there’s “no ‘there’ there,” ordinary people hear that as a denial that improperly stored records have been or will be found. But Coons, minutes later, bizarrely repeated the talking point. “I’m confident that President Biden has said truthfully that there’s no ‘there’ there,” he insisted. He predicted that “whenever the special counsel concludes their investigation, they will agree with what President Biden just said. There was no ‘there’ there.”

Stop pretending there isn’t anything to see here. We already know there is. The only remaining question is how bad it is. So far, there’s no evidence that Biden, his lawyers, or the White House resisted attempts by DOJ or the National Archives to recover documents, as Trump did. But as to how many classified files Biden improperly retained, or what they were: We don’t yet know.

Ian Sams, the spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office, essentially admits this. Last week, in a call with reporters, he cautioned that “we need to let [the] investigation play out and to try to be respectful of facts as they come to light through that investigation.” Any interim statement about the facts of the case might turn out to be “incomplete,” he warned, since “the investigation may uncover additional information.”

Sams was trying to explain why the White House, for two months, hadn’t told the public about the documents found at Biden’s home or office. He was justifying the president’s silence.

But if that’s the White House position—that Biden couldn’t tell us what was there, in part because the investigation might later reveal more than he knew—then he and his allies shouldn’t make broad statements about what isn’t there. With every discovery—in his office, in his home library, in his garage—they’ve claimed to be surprised. They should expect to be surprised again.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.