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CLARENCE PAGE: Biden’s document drama: Stick to the facts, Joe

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

President Joe Biden benefited mightily from the 15-ballot display of disarray by House Republicans to settle the usually routine matter of electing one of their fellow partisans to be speaker of the House.

But that was before he fell into a classified document drama of his own.

Last week Biden tried to show with a visit to the southern border that he was serious about dealing with border security. The documents scandal flap followed him.

The same thing happened two days later when he tried to take some credit for a slowdown in inflation, one of the issues with which Republicans pounded him last year. The questions from reporters turned into a back-and-forth interrogation over the documents.

From a brutally raw political viewpoint, the nagging controversy over the documents has ended a winning streak of good news that followed the worse-than-expected performance of Republicans in November’s midterm elections.

The bad news for the White House is the administration’s tepid public relations performance so far, as they try to drum up some confidence that Democrats will be able to hold onto their message amid the raging storm — and hold off added turbulence that could face Biden’s expected announcement soon of another presidential run.

For now, the best news for Biden is that he still apparently faces less legal exposure than former President Donald Trump. A lot less.

This much we know: When Biden’s lawyers found the first secret vice presidential file in his former Washington office last fall, they cooperated swiftly with the National Archives.

That simple voluntary act may have spared him the potentially criminal exposure from the discovery that Trump potentially faces over his own document haul in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Trump had to be hounded for the government documents, including classified material that was retrieved only when the FBI executed a search warrant at his home.

And more documents were found even after the former president’s lawyer signed an affidavit saying everything had been located.

Some of Trump’s allies gamely tried to argue that a president can declassify a document just by thinking about it. In this telling, any documents Trump brought home had been declassified just because he took them — and were therefore already in the public domain.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has called that dubious line of argument the “Green Lantern” theory, as if presidential power can be conjured up by merely wanting it badly enough — like the comic book hero.

But the presidency is governed by more than willpower. There are also such formalities as laws, rules and constitutional constraints, especially when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as national security.

But in the world of politics, perceptions can matter as much as statutory laws. When we, the public, learned that a second batch of classified material from Biden’s time as vice president had been found in a search of his Delaware home, the information was relayed to the Justice Department before Christmas.

Yet the White House failed to disclose it last week when the Biden administration spoke about the initial batch of documents found last year in an office Biden previously used at the Penn-Biden Center in Washington. That made the new disclosure look as if the administration was willing to tell all to the Justice Department, but not to the American public.

Fortunately for Team Biden, the Justice Department considered having FBI agents monitor a search by Biden’s lawyers for classified documents at his home, but decided against it, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. That was partly to avoid complicating later stages of the investigation, and partly because Biden’s lawyers had quickly cooperated with the first batch and were continuing to do so.

Let’s hear it for transparency.

The White House will have to face the familiar and unsettling hubbub of a Washington scandal, including inquisitions from reporters and the inevitable Watergate question: “What did the president know and when did he know it.”

But, as much as partisans will hear what they want to hear, whether pro-Biden or not, it is crucially important that they cling transparently to the truth — and avoid the wrong perceptions.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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LETTERS: Don’t blame Republicans for border chaos

The president and his handlers alone have done an outstanding job of notifying the world that the border is open and the welcome mat is out.