7 min read

Does everyone have classified documents?

With discoveries at the homes of Mike Pence and Jimmy Carter, it would appear the answer is “yes.”
Does everyone have classified documents?
(D. Myles Cullen / White House)

Former Vice President Mike Pence revealed on Tuesday that his lawyers found a “small number” of classified documents at his Indiana home last week.

The documents have been turned over to the FBI, which has launched a review of the matter, according to CNN.

With Pence’s disclosure, three out of the past four presidents or vice presidents have been confirmed to have had classified records at their homes after leaving office. (Paging Barack Obama’s lawyers...)

Two separate special counsels are investigating Donald Trump and Joe Biden for having classified materials in their possession after leaving the presidency and vice presidency, respectively.  

But that’s not all. According to the Associated Press, former President Jimmy Carter “found classified materials at his home in Plains, Georgia, on at least one occasion and returned them to the National Archives.”

It was not made clear when Carter, who signed the Presidential Records Act into law, made the discovery. In Pence’s case, the ex-VP asked his lawyer to search his home after the Biden classified document revelations.

When documents with classified markings did turn up, Pence’s lawyer immediately alerted the National Archives, which then informed the FBI.

In an ABC News interview in November, Pence was directly asked whether he took classified documents with him after leaving the White House. “I did not,” the former VP and potential 2024 presidential candidate responded.

I reached out to spokespeople for all the living presidents and vice presidents with public contact information on Tuesday, asking if they planned to conduct searches at their homes for classified information in light of the new revelations.

Only Bill Clinton’s office responded, writing: “All of President Clinton’s classified materials were properly turned over to NARA in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”

As I wrote when the Biden documents came to light, there are two sides of these cases to consider: the political and the legal. The existence of all three document mishandlings — Trump, Biden, Pence — will likely have the effect of diffusing the political impact of any one of them, laying bare just how common these situations seem to be.  

Legally, though, there are distinctions. There is plainly a vast difference between Trump’s response when the classified documents were found at his home, and the Pence/Biden responses. As far as we know, Pence and Biden both immediately turned over the documents they found to authorities; Trump, on the other hand, refused to do so for more than a year, flouting repeated requests and even a subpoena.

That is why Trump is being investigated not just for having the classified documents themselves — clearly something of a routine offense, however strange that may be — but also for obstruction of justice. As the AP put it, the possibility of obstruction charges is likely the “most direct legal threat” Trump faces from federal prosecutors. (Whether Merrick Garland decides it is a charge worthy of indicting a former president is another matter.)

The three cases also reveal the serious gaps in the federal government’s process for tracking classified records and overseeing high-level officials as they pack their offices, which appears ripe for reform.

Lawmakers who were questioned after the Pence disclosure on Tuesday appeared mystified that this was happening for a third time.

“Holy heck,” Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner (D-VA) responded. “Wow,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-AK). “It’s just unthinkable,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) added, noting the rigorous process senators go through when they come into contact with classified information.

“If you come to my house,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) joked, “you’ll find Chick-fil-A bags all over the floor, but you’re not going to find any classified information.”

What else I’m watching.

ON THE HILL: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) penned a letter to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) telling him that he had vetoed two of his picks for the Intelligence Committee: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA). McCarthy axed Schiff for his handling of the first Trump impeachment and Swalwell for his ties to a suspected Chinese spy.  

  • What’s next: McCarthy has signaled that he will also seek to block Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from being appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee. As I explained last week, though, that will take a vote of the full House (McCarthy was able to remove members of the Intel committee unilaterally). At least two Republicans have said they will oppose ejecting Omar from the panel, half of the four GOP defections McCarthy can sustain if all members attend the vote.

RACE TO 51: Election forecaster Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated the 2024 West Virginia Senate race as “Leans Republican,” projecting an uphill climb for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) if he opts to run again. Cook Political Report also released new ratings on Tuesday; both forecasts spell the difficult cycle ahead for Democrats, with members of their caucus representing all of the seats labeled most competitive on the two maps.

  • Race to watch: Now that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) has changed her party affiliation, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) likely has a straight shot at the Democratic nomination in Arizona. But several Senate Democrats — including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — have indicated they might still support Sinema if she runs, setting the stage for an awkward three-way race.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) has yet to announce her plans for 2024. (Gage Skidmore)

UKRAINE: The U.S. plans to send more than 30 M1 Abrams tanks — the world’s most powerful — to Ukraine, bowing to months of pressure and breaking a logjam with Germany, which will now also send battle tanks to Ukraine as well.

SANTOS: More than a month has passed since Rep. George Santos (R-NY) promised he would explain the many lies peppering his résumé “next week.” But still no explanation has emerged. Meanwhile, House Republican Conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) is facing scrutiny for her role as a “key validator” for Santos during his campaign.

What the government is doing today.

All times Eastern.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing and have lunch with Vice President Harris.

Vice President Harris will address a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus at the Capitol before having lunch with Biden at the White House. Finally, she will travel to Monterey Park, California to offer condolences to the families of the 11 victims of the recent shooting at a Lunar New Year celebration.

First Lady Biden will visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to present the ensembles she wore at her husband’s 2021 inauguration, which will be added to the museum’s First Ladies Collection.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing. [Watch at 1:30 p.m.]

Legislative Branch

The Senate has no votes scheduled at this time. [Watch’s today’s session starting at 10 a.m.]

The House will vote on eight pieces of legislation, including a resolution applauding the Iranian protests and a bill setting up a task force to examine the FAA computer system that crashed this month and briefly grounded all U.S. flights:

  1. H.R. 255 – Federal Disaster Assistance Coordination Act
  2. H.R. 259 – Post-Disaster Assistance Online Accountability Act
  3. H.R. 388 – Securities and Exchange Commission Real Estate Leasing Authority Revocation Act
  4. H.R. 346 – NOTAM Improvement Act
  5. H.R. 400 – Investing in Main Street Act
  6. H.R. 399 – Small Business Advocacy Improvements Act
  7. H.R. 449 – Microloan Transparency and Accountability Act
  8. H.Con.Res. 7 – Commending the bravery, courage, and resolve of the women and men of Iran demonstrating in more than 80 cities and risking their safety to speak out against the Iranian regime's human rights abuses

[Watch today’s session starting at 10 a.m.]

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court is scheduled to argue its next cases on February 21.

Before I go...

Here’s something interesting: Scholars have long agreed that the earliest human writings date back to about 5,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (what is now modern-day Iraq).

But Bennett Bacon, a furniture conservator in London who is also an amateur archeologist, has proposed a new theory that is turning conventional wisdom on its head. Bacon analyzed hundreds of cave paintings and believes that a series of dots that previously lacked an explanation actually represent a complex record-keeping system that prehistoric humans used to track the animals around them.  

If he is correct about their purpose, and that system is considered to be writing (or at least proto-writing), it would mean humans began practicing their earliest forms of writing somehwere between 10,000 and 37,000 years earlier than previously thought.

“To put [the discovery] into perspective, keep in mind that the pyramids were only built about 4,5000 years ago, so 10,000 years tacked onto the history of writing is a big change,” Substack author Brian Klaas explains.

Here’s more from Klaas, including pictures of the cave paintings in question:

Did humans start writing 10,000+ years earlier than we thought?
A London-based furniture conservator and amateur archaeologist may have solved a mystery that has long perplexed experts—and it could revolutionize our understanding of the history of humanity.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe