Having lived in the United Kingdom now for almost half my life, the main difference that I’ve discovered between American and British politics is that American politics is done out loud and British politics is not.
To find out anything in the UK, you have to be an investigative reporter or have some kind of special interest – like Dan Neidle, the tax expert whose probing helped expose Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. But too much is hidden. Way too many people not only have no knowledge of the British constitution, they’ve actually never heard of it.
It makes it difficult to discuss, for example, the transgressions of Boris Johnson when there are those who have no idea what the prime minister actually does, where his powers begin and end. Some even think that the monarch has a real say in things. This puts British democracy constantly on a knife-edge, because knowledge of it is reserved for the elite and for journalists.
Someday there will be a crisis of democracy here, even bigger than the one in the United States right now. Yet Americans are always being educated about their politics; things are always in their face, helping them find out stuff. They frequently get yet another example of how American democracy works. Or does not work.
The latest lesson is on classified documents and presidents, present and past.
So what is a classified document? The closest that you can get to an explanation is that it is one that has clearly visible stamps or some sort of cover on them that says “classified”. Anyone handling something like that would know that sensitive material was inside the folder or envelope.
This means that the material has to be handled carefully and placed in what is called a “SCIF” – a “sensitive compartmented information facility”. Somewhere with controls to ensure security.
A SCIF is not your garage or beach house, nor is it a locked closet in an office building or under your desk.
The next lesson is about the different levels of classification.
The lowest level of classification is “confidential”, information that could harm national security.
The next level up is “secret”, which could cause what is called “serious damage” to national security. The code of federal regulations states that this designation should be used sparingly, and for information that, if it were revealed, could cause “disruption of foreign relations affecting national security”. If leaked, it could reveal significant military plans, or compromise scientific or technical knowledge relating to national security.
“Top secret” is the highest level. The exposure of any knowledge within a document with this marking could cause “exceptionally grave damage”. In 2017, an intelligence contractor leaked a “top secret” document to Russia, earning a five-year sentence.
Then there is “SAP” – “Special Access Programme”. This kind of material is only seen on a “need to know” basis, and has even higher checks before access than “top secret”.
The American people have had and are still having an education about all of these levels, whether we like it or not.
No one knows yet what level the papers found at Joe Biden’s home offices are. There are materials dated from 2013 and 2016, when he was vice-president, found at his Washington DC thinktank, the Penn Biden Center – and some of those papers involved the UK.
There were also unclassified papers that fall under the Presidential Records Act which the National Archives should have had; plus Biden family documents mixed in.
The attorney general, head of the Justice Department, the nation’s cops – has appointed a special prosecutor. Now America has a former president with a special prosecutor and a sitting president with one, too.
So far, Biden’s mess looks like carelessness: what happens when you leave a job or retire and you pack up the wrong stuff. Then years later while you’re going through your garage or attic, you find things that should have been left behind. In the case of Biden, this material was found and reported to the proper authorities right away.
Trump is different. Way different. Trump obstructed. Fought.
So far, it appears that Biden got in touch with the right people, and in time. Trump was caught with records that had been hoarded while he was president. His people argue that this actually gave him more leeway; that somehow he could declassify anything. Even just think about it and it was done, as Trump himself has even said.
But he defied the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a law passed to prevent Richard Nixon from destroying tapes and other materials, especially those concerning Watergate, while in the White House.
That makes it illegal to do what Trump tried to do: rewrite American history. He had the paperwork. He has said, in all seriousness, that he wanted them because they were, well, “cool” and “souvenirs”.
And Trump, always the aesthete, also pointed out how carefully his documents were stashed away, as opposed to Joe Biden’s helter-skelter. This actually might work in Joe’s favour.
So how does this look for the 2024 presidential election and what is currently Joe Biden’s teeny-tiny comeback in the polls – the one some are calling the “Bidenaissance.”
The American people are aware of the story of these classified documents, and polls show that they are taking it all seriously. But some pundits are indicating that they might also understand the difference. Biden’s mistake is like walking out of the shop without paying and then hurrying back in to rectify that. Trump’s is like finding out that you didn’t pay, then driving off anyway, finally having to be chased down by security.
Americans also know that Trump and Biden need each other.
Trump thinks his best chance is against the man he calls Sleepy Joe. But if the GOP are stupid enough to run “Don The Con” again, Joe will beat him again.
But these forced US civics lessons; the continuing education of the American people in the convolutions of government, are making the electorate wonder what is coming next. Especially in the face of the fact that they may be presented again with the same match-up of presidential candidates, Biden v Trump.