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Pressure mounts on Biden to stem fallout from mishandling of classified documents

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Donald Trump, President Biden and now former Vice President Mike Pence all have something in common - classified documents were found at their homes. Pence is the latest official to join this club. His lawyer says a small number of the documents were found at the former vice president's home in Indiana last week. They've since been turned over to the FBI. Pressure is also mounting on President Biden over the discoveries of classified documents at his home and a former office. Here's Senator Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

DICK DURBIN: Well, I'm concerned. There's a standard that we follow when it comes to members of Congress and classified information. To think that any of them ended up in boxes in storage one place or the other is just unacceptable.

FADEL: We now turn to Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank the Third Way. Good morning.

MATT BENNETT: Good morning.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with the latest. Now that classified documents were found at Pence's house, will the administration use this for their own political relief?

BENNETT: Well, I don't know if they will do it intentionally, but I think that just, inevitably, it provides political relief to the president. And it helps the public understand that these kinds of things can happen inadvertently. I take Vice President Pence at his word that he didn't know about these documents because, in the hectic days at the end of an administration - and I've been there for one - things get tossed in the wrong box. And I don't think anyone thinks vice presidents pack all their own stuff, so this was probably a staff error. And I think it was inadvertent, and I think the Biden team can point to that and say, look, this kind of thing happens to both sides.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, at this point, I'm kind of wondering if every former president or VP has classified documents just lying around their house. Does this now stop the use of the mishandling of classified documents as the political weapon? As we've seen, the Democrats and Republicans use them against each other.

BENNETT: No, there's no question that House Republicans in particular are going to investigate...

FADEL: Yeah.

BENNETT: ...The Biden situation because they are politically motivated to do so. And, look, he's the president at the moment, so he's a bigger target than a former vice president. Although, if Pence runs, then I think this will become an issue on the trail for him. I do think you're going to see - you know, the Justice Department will be investigating the Biden situation, and the House as well. So it doesn't go away, but it definitely changes the political calculus.

FADEL: You mention Pence possibly running for president. That's also something these three men have in common - Trump, Biden, Pence - all possible candidates for president in 2024. Does this hurt their chances?

BENNETT: I really don't think so. This is not the kind of scandal that voters think about when they're voting. It doesn't even really affect their view of the candidates themselves. I mean, if you look at the polling that's come out since the Trump and Biden revelations, it really has had very little impact on either candidate. So I don't think this is going to have a big political tail to it.

FADEL: Now, this is all happening as a new, untested chief of staff is coming in for Biden. Is he equipped to handle the backlash over this, yes, but other issues as well? Republicans in the House say they plan multiple investigations, and they've seized on other things, like the Afghanistan withdrawal, Hunter Biden.

BENNETT: I think he is. The - you know, his chief qualification is that he's very good at management. And I think, in the next two years, the White House is going to need someone who can manage a kind of cascade of different issues and problems and challenges. He's going to have the House investigations over this and probably 10 other things. Republicans are ginning up all kinds of investigations - some of them completely spurious, but others they'll have to pay attention to. They've got to implement the very large spending bills that were passed in the last two years. They've got to get a few things passed through Congress, like raising the debt ceiling. And then there's inevitably things that come along, both domestically and international, that the president has to deal with. And then they've got to run the campaign. So I think somebody that can kind of keep all of those pieces moving - the plates spinning - is the right person for that job.

FADEL: And this is that person?

BENNETT: I think it is. I mean, he did a tremendous job both when he came into the Obama team to fix the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and then with the rollout of vaccines. Those were big, multipart problems that he was managing, and he did, by all accounts, an amazing job on both.

FADEL: Back to the classified materials - Biden and Pence both cooperating with authorities, both disclosing. The Trump case - different - he hid documents. He didn't cooperate with authorities in the same way. Does this latest discovery let him off the hook, not just with voters, but more generally?

BENNETT: No, I don't think so. The Justice Department has - it doesn't matter to the Justice Department that Joe Biden and Mike Pence are dealing with similar situations. They're going to do their own investigation. And if Donald Trump had - you know, did things that were illegal, that is going to matter to them, and I don't think it matters that there are other things bubbling, you know, on other parts of the stove here.

FADEL: Matt Bennett served in Bill Clinton's White House and co-founded the Third Way think tank. Thank you so much for your time.

BENNETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.