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Don Mohler: Leaders make the same mistake every time. Here’s a playbook to flip the script

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news on Jan. 12 conference at the Justice Department to announce the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the discovery of classified documents held by President Biden at an office and his home. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

By Don Mohler

The writer is the former Baltimore County executive and president and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He can be reached at [email protected].

When crooning about love, The Everly Brothers (under 50, it’s Google time again) reminded us that, “She always breaks my heart in two. It happens every time.” With apologies to Phil and Don, when it comes to crisis management, we could write our own song about those in power, “They always screw it up, they do. It happens every time.”

The latest news that classified documents have been located at a number of private Biden locations is simply the latest reminder that our esteemed leaders get it wrong over, and over, and over again. And folks, it just ain’t that hard to get it right.

Here are the facts: President Trump had classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. President Biden evidently stored documents at the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania and in his garage next to his Corvette at his home in Wilmington, Del. That one would have been a great Beach Boys song.

Let’s start with the basics: Both of these things are wrong. Now that wasn’t that hard, was it?

As Democrats we can scream all that we want about how different these two cases are (and more likely than not, be right), but both are bad. There is a way to manage crises like this, and so far the Biden administration has failed the test. But they are not alone. Those in power always fail this test. And that is amazing, because there are enough examples in history to make this an open-book test.

So once again, I offer a playbook to change the script.

As I’ve written ad nauseum, most Americans do not live and breathe this stuff. They are not going to scour the news and spend hours trying to identify the nuance. They just won’t. They hear a headline that says, “Documents found in President Biden’s garage,” and they shrug and tell their friends, “See, they all do it.” Americans, by and large, think elected officials play by their own rules. That is unfortunate, but it is reality. We aren’t likely to change that perception anytime soon.

So, what does that mean? First, do not lead with the distinctions between what Trump did and what Biden did. The public will hear it as obfuscation and tune it out. Does that mean you are helpless? Not at all.

There are key differences between what Donald Trump did and what appears to be the sloppiness of the Biden team. Trump willfully took documents to his home. He proudly claimed he declassified them by waving a magic wand. He and his attorneys refused to turn over the documents to the National Archives. It was only after six months of requests, that the FBI raided his Florida residence. He continues to maintain that he owns the documents.

As for Biden, it appears as if his team began to search for documents once the Trump caper became public. According to reports, as soon as the documents were found they were turned over to the proper government officials. By all accounts, Biden’s staff is cooperating totally with the Justice Department.

Trump intentional. Biden sloppy. Both bad. Two very different things.

Well then, how to message all of this becomes the question. Rule one is to identify your audience, and in this case, there are several: There are the MAGA loyalists who are leaping with joy. No message will reach them, so don’t waste your time. There are partisan Democrats who will rally around the team just because it is “The” team. They are on board. Get them the information they need to understand the big picture.

There are moderates and independents who do follow the news carefully and who make a good faith effort to get to the bottom of issues. Make sure that you have enough surrogates sharing the facts with every single media outlet so that the differences in the two cases are crystal clear. Over time, this group will conclude that there may indeed be a false equivalency here.

And then there is the last group — those who just don’t pay much attention to all of this, but who feel that all politicians are schmucks. They make decisions based upon gut feelings and reactions. Are you a good guy or gal or not? Are you being honest with me? Can I trust you? These folks have a pretty good “BS” meter, and they don’t like to feel as if they are being spoken down to or played for fools. Just give it to them straight.

For years, I had a whiteboard in my office with three sentences on it: Tell it all. Tell it early. Tell it yourself. I’d like to take credit for this bit of wisdom, but it actually comes from Lanny Davis, who was special counsel to President Clinton. It should be the guiding star for any organization facing a crisis, but it rarely is. So, with a tip of the hat to Mr. Davis, here’s how that would have looked like for Team Biden:

Call a press conference immediately. Have the president come out with no notes. Yes, that will scare the hell out of the staff and the attorneys, but the facts are the facts. Let’s just be honest with the American public and the press. Biden would say something like this:

“Let me be very clear. There is no way that classified documents of any kind should have been housed at any of my private offices or residences. That is unacceptable, and I take full responsibility for the mistake. As Harry Truman said, ‘The buck stops here.’ At this point in time, it is not clear how those documents got there, but I am conducting a thorough review to find out. In the meantime, my staff immediately turned over any files to the National Archives, and we are cooperating fully with the Justice Department. I also welcome the appointment of a special counsel to look into this matter. I want to apologize to the American people. As part of my transition from the vice presidency, I should have followed up to ensure that all documents were delivered to a secure location. I did not do that, and that is on me.

“I also want to address why the issue as to why this discovery was not made public one week before the midterm elections. I could give you some song and dance, but you would see right through it, and I promised from day one to speak the truth to the American public. Here’s the reality: it was a political decision. Candidates all across this nation had spent a year working their butts off to win an election in their state. I did not think it would be fair to have their races imperiled because of a mistake that I made. I thought they should win or lose on their own merits. People are free to disagree with that, but that is why I made that decision.

“I will keep you apprised of any new information that we uncover as we move froward. Now I’ll be glad to take any questions.”

Would such a statement drive the attorneys to the liquor cabinet? You bet. But here’s a news flash: Their cautious approach is not always the best approach. Stop treating the American public as if they are idiots. Tell them the truth and be ready to take some lumps along the way. Stop the damn drip, drip, drip. Cauterize the wound and move on.

At least I can dream.