Republican senators were surprised to learn about the discovery of classified material at the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence, in yet another twist involving top U.S. government officials and their handling of sensitive documents.
“What the heck?” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said to reporters after CNN first broke the news Tuesday.
“I don’t get it,” added Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who often handles classified information as part of his job serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Anybody that deals with classified materials knows they have to be maintained in a secure place and not be available to our adversaries by putting them into a place that’s easily penetrated. So, it’s not good,” Cornyn added.
Pence’s lawyers discovered “a small number” of documents with classification markings that were “inadvertently boxed and transported” to his home after his tenure as vice president, according to an attorney for Pence.
Pence was unaware of their existence, the attorney said, and his legal team handed them over voluntarily to the National Archives and Records Administration — an approach that stands in sharp contrast to how former President Donald Trump and his team refused for months to return classified material located at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump has also compared the FBI agents who conducted a search of his estate to Nazi Germany’s secret police.
The news of Pence’s documents comes after the discovery of classified material at President Joe Biden’s home and offices, including from his time as a senator. The Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to look into Biden’s handling of documents with classified markings, with the White House maintaining that their misplacement was inadvertent.
But the fact that at least three top U.S. officials of both major parties had apparently mishandled classified information generated astonishment on Capitol Hill ― as well as plenty of jokes.
“I can understand the president having documents … but a vice president or a senator? I mean, you’re not that important. Come on,” Tuberville told HuffPost when asked about the Pence revelation.
“It’s either incompetence, not paying enough attention, or you’re doing it on purpose,” he added.
“What the hell’s going on around here?” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another Senate Intelligence Committee member, told reporters when asked for his reaction to the news. He cited a “systemic problem” within the executive branch over the handling of classified information.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) quipped that his attorneys had “gone through my files and have found Jimmy Hoffa’s remains,” referring to wild conspiracy theories about the labor union boss’s disappearance in 1975.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) suggested former Vice President Dan Quayle may have to do a thorough search of his belongings, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the “only thing I think you’ll find at my house is a bunch of Chick-fil-A bags on the floor.”
Jests aside, multiple senators also suggested reexamining the government classification process because of a tendency to overclassify information, as well as reviewing the way in which officials interact with sensitive documents.
“I just can’t explain it,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “If it’s a shabby staff work, so be it. But ultimately, the elected officials have to be held responsible.”
The revelation that Pence kept classified documents at his home has undercut weeks of Republican attacks against Biden. Some House GOP lawmakers had even suggested that the president violated the Espionage Act.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he planned to seek an intelligence review and damage assessment of the classified documents from Pence’s home, as he did for those found in Biden’s home and offices, to check for possible national security concerns.
“It is a serious matter for any government official to mishandle classified documents,” Turner tweeted.