WASHINGTON - The probe into classified documents found in President Joe Biden’s possession is a political embarrassment for him and will undercut Democrat criticisms of former president Donald Trump, who is being investigated for his own mishandling of sensitive material.
But while the furore may make Mr Biden’s expected bid for re-election in 2024 bumpier and give Republicans plenty of ammunition, it is unlikely to be a major campaign issue that sways voters, say experts.
The Biden case echoed the seizure of classified documents from Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida, but Democrats and Biden officials have argued strenuously that they are not equivalent.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Mr Biden had cooperated with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and that his team had informed the National Archives once they discovered “a small number” of documents in his possession in a think-tank office in Washington and at his home in Delaware, and turned them over shortly afterwards.
Mr Trump, in contrast, resisted turning over hundreds of documents that the authorities retrieved only after a subpoena and a raid.
Still, Mr Biden’s carelessness makes it harder for him to criticise Mr Trump without caveats – and Americans not familiar with the details of the cases might view them similarly.
University of New Haven political scientist Patricia Crouse told The Straits Times: “In Biden’s case, people will probably view it as just an oversight or accidental, and they may start to look at what Trump did in the same way even though the cases are definitely not equivalent. If the conservative media spin it that way, it could undermine the Trump investigation.”
Dr Crouse said she does not think this would have an impact on the next presidential election.
Mr Trump has thrown his hat in the ring for 2024, while Mr Biden has hinted at a re-election campaign but not formally unveiled one yet.
“The American electorate has notoriously short memories, and I don’t see this being a major campaign issue for either side. Disapproval among Republicans for Biden is probably already as low as it can go,” she said.
Political scientist Chris Haynes, also from the University of New Haven, said: “I really don’t think this moves the needle much for independent voters or Democrats, but it’s something that Republicans can definitely make a lot of hay out of.”
Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives, and have vowed to open investigations into Mr Biden.
It also puts a damper on the Biden team’s ebullience following the better-than-expected Democratic showing in the November midterm elections and amid slowing inflation.
Dr Haynes said the case might get Democratic elites to reconsider Mr Biden as the party’s nominee for 2024.
“I think it might give a lot of them a little bit of pause. It may not convince them that he can’t run or shouldn’t run, but it might get them to rethink whether or not he really is in the best interest of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Democrats are also nervous about a potential rerun of the controversy over 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of her e-mails, with some criticising media outlets for not putting the story in proper context and blowing it out of proportion.
But the appointment of a special counsel, former prosecutor and Trump nominee Robert Hur, to oversee the Biden probe could also lend credibility to the Trump investigation, by showing that the DOJ is impartial, said experts.
“You can see how some segments of our population could probably take solace in the fact that we have a Justice Department that is not only willing to investigate Trump, but also investigate its own president,” said Dr Haynes.
Said Dr Crouse: “I think (Attorney-General) Merrick Garland appointing a special counsel to take over the investigation does help protect the integrity of the DOJ and shows there is no double standard when it comes to Biden and Trump.”