The similarities between the three situations might lead a casual observer to consider them broadly equivalent – that perhaps this is something everyone does and therefore none of these situations is much worse or better than the others. Instead, the Pence revelation highlights how the Trump situation was so obviously an outlier in scope and intent.
Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump
The best way to compare the three situations is to develop a timeline. This is incomplete; We don’t yet know exactly what kind of documents were seized from Biden and Pence. But even without that, we can get a good feel for the differences.
By now the story should be known. Trump left office in late January 2021. In May, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) learned that a number of important documents from his presidency had not been turned over to them. They contacted Trump and worked to obtain this material for several months.
Finally, in January 2022, Trump’s team shipped 15 boxes of supplies back to Washington. In these boxes, mixed with other records, were more than 180 documents with classification marks. NARA alerted the Justice Department that an investigation into the handling of classified material may be warranted.
An investigation began. In May 2022, a subpoena was issued for documents the government had learned were still in Trump’s possession. Another cache of documents was turned over the following month, with attorney Christina Bobb confirming that no more documents could be found responding to the subpoena — which called for all documents to be marked, regardless of classification status.
The government soon learned that was not true. In August, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and found more than 100 other classified documents. In November, after Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid, a special counsel was appointed by the Justice Department to continue the investigation.
In November, just before the midterm elections, Biden’s attorneys discovered several documents with classification marks in an office used by a University of Pennsylvania think tank founded after Biden left the vice presidency. At least one of these documents was marked “Top Secret”; the exact number is not clear. The attorneys notified NARA, which then alerted the Justice Department.
Another search of Biden’s Delaware home in December turned up a small number of documents in his garage. Then, earlier this month, a search of his office uncovered a package containing six documents with classification marks. Last weekend, an FBI search of Biden’s home (which Biden voluntarily consented to) turned up another six “items” that contained classification markings, although it’s not clear what that means.
Amid those searches, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to review Biden’s handling of documents.
After all the attention drawn to the Trump and Biden discoveries, attorneys for Pence searched his home. This month they contacted NARA about a small number of documents, about 10, that had classification marks. The FBI collected the documents from Pence’s home.
So, based on what we now know, we can make some comparisons.
Did all three officers discover documents with classified markings, indicating the possibility (but not certain since the documents may have been declassified) that they improperly stored classified material? Yes.
Did all three officials repeatedly try to avoid handing over these documents to the government? no Only Trump appears to have repeatedly attempted to keep documents with classification marks, leading to the involuntary search of his property at Mar-a-Lago. Again, the extent of the Biden situation is still unclear, but there’s no reason to believe at this point that the footage found by the FBI in Biden’s home contained items he was trying to keep. After all, the Biden search was voluntary.
Additionally, some of the documents at Mar-a-Lago were found in a box in Trump’s personal office, suggesting they weren’t simply overlooked among a multitude of storage containers.
Did all three officers have the same number of marked documents? Not at all. Pence had fewer than a dozen documents; Biden, two or three dozen. Trump had literally hundreds — even after the point he had already turned over two caches of documents to officials after requesting it.
That so much conversation about the documents focuses only on this first point – that all three men kept documents with secret markings – is important. There is an obvious political benefit for Trump to focus the discussion on this fundamental issue. Especially when the situation involved only him and Biden, it was an easy way to deflect any questions about what had happened, even if they were oversimplified.
The revelation that Pence also had documents is important in large part because it highlights just how extraordinary Trump’s response was. There is no indication that his vice president knew he had documents with such markings, much less that he had them on purpose. Pence’s discovery is more useful to Biden, suggesting, for example, that it can be relatively common – how unfortunate it is at the very least – for documents with marks to turn up in personal records. That didn’t happen with Trump.
For all three men, politics is a central concern. Everyone is a potential candidate for 2024 and everyone wants to use this to their advantage as much as possible.
The intersection with the broader political discussion is particularly evident when we look at how Fox News has reacted to each series of revelations. The network has been far less frequent than CNN or MSNBC over the past year to discuss confidential documents related to Trump more probably do in relation to Biden given the recent revelations.
In recent weeks, the scope of what has been found in Biden’s possession has increased, even as he and his aides have clearly hidden information from the public. One should therefore be cautious in assuming no further disclosures about the scope or intentions are forthcoming.
However, given what is known, there is simply no comparison between the three situations. All three officers had documents that could turn out to be classified. Only one refused to release these documents and hid hundreds of them from the government for more than a year.