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ANALYSIS | JAMES PINDELL

For the first time in US history, a presidential race looms with both party front-runners under federal investigation

Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department have announced special counsels in investigations into the handling of classified documents on behalf of both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, though under very different circumstances.Chip Somodevilla/Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/G

At its best, the nearly two-year presidential campaign offers a chance for the nation to deeply examine its future. That includes not just the obvious, like who the future leader might be, but what issues are priorities, and where each political party might go next ideologically.

But with the 2024 presidential race looming, Americans have something else to consider. The most likely nominees for both major parties are currently under federal investigation, a dispiriting first for the country.

Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision last week to name a special counsel to investigate President Biden’s handling of classified documents was as unsurprising as it was predictable.

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Weeks earlier, Garland had named a different special counsel to do the same thing as it related to former president Trump’s mishandling of classified documents.

On the merits, the two cases are wildly different both in scope and likely intent.

When aides to Biden first found a classified document among papers at a think tank Biden ran in Washington, they stopped what they were doing, notified the Department of Justice, and asked how they could be securely returned to the government. The same thing happened when other classified documents were found at Biden’s Delaware home.

When it was discovered that Trump had classified material, his lawyers initially refused to cooperate with the government. Then, allegedly, they didn’t hand the documents over or secure them properly. And even after an unprecedented raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, there may allegedly be more classified material that hasn’t been turned over.

And then there’s the matter of Trump claiming that it wasn’t all a mistake — as Biden explained his situation on Thursday — but that he had the right to possess the material since he could declassify material just by thinking about it. (Granted, he would also need to be president when he did so.)

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There have been two real impacts of these investigations on the upcoming presidential race. First, any gearing up for the race has essentially frozen. Trump is the only major party presidential candidate at the moment. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Many would-be challengers to Trump see no incentive to announce their own campaigns. After all, any day Trump could be indicted. If they just wait to see if that happens, they could announce their runs and not face the fury of Trump’s die-hard fans.

Furthermore, Trump hasn’t done much since he announced his campaign in November. The first time since then that Trump will even leave Florida is next weekend, when he will do a quick press conference in South Carolina. His lack of action on the race could be because he’s focused on the potential for a criminal indictment — or because he’s too focused on golf.

The Democratic campaign has also been frozen. Reporting from CNN and others suggested that Biden was set to announce his reelection bid in early February after he delivered the State of the Union address. But with the investigation ongoing, his plans — at least the timing of them — remain in limbo. And that’s critical, given that the first presidential primary contests are roughly a year away.

It also changes what’s being discussed in the context of the presidential race. Four years ago, the Democratic presidential race was getting underway with a handful of candidates discussing where they stood on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. This time around, the news developments are about investigations: whether Biden’s team was transparent enough, and whether Trump is only a candidate to avoid prosecution.

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James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.