Democrats and Republicans are preparing to nominate two known national security risks
Seeing a grown man nearly in tears begging for mercy was a dispiriting experience I had at the Pentagon, when a mid-level officer was imploring Defense Department officials not to destroy his military career because of his inadvertent mishandling of a single classified document.
Yet, top government officials over several administrations have played fast and loose with national security by intentionally misappropriating highly sensitive government materials for their own purposes.
In 2005, Sandy Berger, former President Clinton’s national security adviser, was caught in the National Archives stuffing into his suit pants documents that apparently contained information damaging to Clinton. He pleaded guilty, paid a $10,000 fine, and served no jail time.
An extensive FBI investigation in 2016 found that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had secreted thousands of pages of classified information onto her unauthorized private server, which was open to foreign hacking. FBI Director James Comey decided not to prosecute.
Former President Donald Trump faces seven criminal charges for willful retention of national defense information, corruptly concealing documents, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and false statements. He initially refused to return the purloined documents to the government, claiming they were now his declassified personal property.
A special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department to investigate President Joe Biden’s unauthorized possession of secret government documents has found that he “willfully retained and disclosed classified materials” and repeatedly rejected staff requests to return daily briefing materials. But Robert Hur assessed that a jury would be unwilling to convict “a sympathetic, elderly man with a poor memory.” He also declined to prosecute because Biden, unlike Trump, cooperated by returning the materials and agreed to be interviewed.
The Trump case is now apparently the new high bar for prosecution of classified documents violations — anything less than blatant defiance, obstruction and destruction, gets a free pass, national security notwithstanding.
Both the former and incumbent presidents seriously endangered the nation by taking personal possession of its secrets and exposing them to the eyes of unauthorized persons and potential use by foreign governments, including known adversaries of the United States. Yet, these two deeply flawed elderly men, out of 336 million American citizens, are widely expected to be the nominees of their respective parties and the only viable alternatives for the leadership of the world’s greatest democracy and the free world.
How has this happened?
Since neither Biden, 81, nor Trump, 77, was dragooned into seeking a second presidential term, the first answer has to be their insatiable personal egos.
Nina Turner, co-chair of the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said this about the 2024 situation:
“No amount of gaslighting, denial, or delusion on the part of the Democratic insiders is going to change these facts. The American people have every right to be concerned. Bottom line, it is incredibly selfish for both Biden and Trump to be running again at this stage of their lives. Do they have the right to? Yes. Should they? Absolutely not.” (Side note: Had Sanders won in 2020, he would have served from the age of 79 to 83.)
Unfortunately, senior leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties have lacked the political courage or the patriotic conscience to urge their putative nominees to step aside now in favor of a younger, more competent generation.
Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips and political adviser David Axelrod have done that; eight Republicans challenged Trump’s ambition for a coronation, with only former South Carolina Gov. and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley surviving to fight on.
It was not groundswells of grassroots support that advanced Biden and Trump to their dominant positions. While each has his core base of supporters, their pliant national committees changed the 2024 nominating rules to favor them.
The Democrats upended 104 years of party tradition by making South Carolina instead of New Hampshire the first state to hold an authorized primary. They did so because it was the state that stopped Sanders’s growing momentum in 2020 after Biden had badly lost the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. At the urging of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), African American voters turned out in droves to save Biden’s skin. This year, however, despite the establishment’s best efforts, turnout for the Democratic primary was only at 4 percent — the lowest on record.
As for Trump’s 2024 “inevitability,” the Republican National Committee refused to adopt either a proportional selection of delegates or a requirement that the winner gain a majority rather than a plurality of votes with runoffs where necessary. Instead, the winner-take-all delegate selection rules that enabled Trump’s 2016 nomination were expanded to states that had been using the proportional system. Nevada jury-rigged a confusing caucus and primary contraption that allocated all the delegates to a Trump-controlled caucus.
So, the nation and the world, allies and adversaries, watch in disbelief as America’s national security could be returned to the hands of either Biden or Trump, two men who are clearly impaired for both similar, age-related reasons as well as quite different ones that were exhibited before they ascended to the presidency.
Trump showed his absolute disdain for ethical and legal norms throughout his long business career. And Biden’s deeply flawed judgment was evident well before becoming officially “well-meaning and elderly.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served with then-Vice President Biden in the Obama administration, said Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue for the last 40 years.” Biden also abandoned his second of four presidential runs because he plagiarized a British politician’s speech.
It is a desperate hope that the parties can pull back from the embarrassing and highly dangerous predicament they have created for the nation. The Democratic establishment must persuade Biden to withdraw and allow a younger generation to compete for leadership — people like Mark Warner, Chris Murphy, Gavin Newsom, even Kamala Harris.
For Republicans, South Carolina’s voters have the unique opportunity in the Feb. 24 primary to change the dynamics of the race by choosing the solid, indomitable Haley over the increasingly unstable Trump, who disparages America’s military and encourages Russia to invade NATO. Patriotic Democratic and independent voters who skipped the Democratic primary can join in that effort — which, if Haley wins, can also persuade Democrats to change their nominee.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.