There are now three current or former members of the executive branch who have been found to have had documents with classification markings at their private residences: former president Donald Trump, President Biden and former vice president Mike Pence, who this week reported turning over documents found in his Indiana house to the government.
The similarities between the three situations might lead a casual observer to consider them broadly equivalent — that this is something everyone does, perhaps, and therefore that none of these situations is much worse or better than the others. Instead, the Pence revelation makes clear the ways in which the Trump situation was so obviously an outlier in both scale and intent.
The best way to compare the three situations is by developing a timeline. This is incomplete; we don’t yet know details about what sorts of documents were recovered from Biden and Pence. But even without that, we can get a good sense of the distinctions.
By now, the story should be familiar. Trump left office in late January 2021. By May, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) became aware that a number of important documents from his presidency hadn’t been turned over to them. They contacted Trump and, over a number of months, worked to receive that material.
In January 2022, Trump’s team finally sent 15 boxes of material back to Washington. Included in those boxes, intermixed with other records, were more than 180 documents with classification markings. NARA alerted the Justice Department that an investigation into the handling of classified material might be warranted.
An investigation began. In May 2022, a subpoena was issued for documents the government had learned were still in Trump’s possession. The following month, another cache of documents was handed over, with attorney Christina Bobb attesting that no more documents responsive to the subpoena — which demanded all documents with markings, regardless of classification status — could be found.
The government soon learned that wasn’t true. In August, the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago and found more than 100 additional documents with classification markings. In November, after Trump declared his 2024 presidential bid, a special counsel was appointed by the Justice Department to continue the probe.
In November, shortly before the midterm elections, attorneys for Biden discovered several documents with classification markings at an office that had been used by a University of Pennsylvania think tank created after Biden left the vice presidency. At least one of those documents was marked “top secret”; the precise number isn’t clear. The attorneys notified NARA, which then alerted the Justice Department.
A further search of Biden’s home in Delaware in December turned up a small number of documents in his garage. Then, a search of his office this month led to the discovery of a packet of six documents with classification markings. Last weekend, an FBI search of Biden’s home (to which Biden voluntarily acquiesced) turned up an additional six “items” that included classification markings, though it’s not clear what that means.
In the midst of those searches, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to review Biden’s handling of documents.
After all of the attention that had been 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 markings. The FBI collected the documents from Pence’s home.
Comparing the situations
So, based on what we now know, we can make some comparisons.
Did all three officials uncover documents with classification markings, indicating the possibility (but not certainty, since the documents may have been declassified) that they were improperly storing classified material? Yes.
Did all three officials repeatedly try to avoid turning those documents over to the government? No. Only Trump appears to have repeatedly tried to retain documents with classification markings, leading to the involuntary search of his property at Mar-a-Lago. Again, the dimensions of the Biden situation are still unclear, but there’s no reason at this point to think that the material found by the FBI at Biden’s home included things he was trying to retain. After all, the Biden search was voluntary.
What’s more, a number of the documents at Mar-a-Lago were found in a box in Trump’s personal office, suggesting that they were not simply overlooked among a large number of storage containers.
Did all three officials have the same number of marked documents? Not at all. Pence had under a dozen documents; Biden, two or three dozen. Trump had literally hundreds — including after the point at which he had already turned two caches of documents over to officials following demands that he do so.
That so much of the conversation about the documents centers on only that first point — that all three men retained documents with classified markings — is important. There is an obvious political utility for Trump to center the discussion on that basic matter. Particularly when the situation involved only himself and Biden, it was an easy way to wave off any questions about what had occurred, however oversimplified.
The revelation that Pence, too, had documents is important in large part because it makes obvious how exceptional Trump’s response was. There’s no indication his vice president knew he had documents with such markings and certainly no indication that he intentionally had them. The Pence discovery is more useful to Biden, suggesting, for example, that it may be relatively common — however unfortunate, at a minimum — for documents with markings to turn up in personal records. That’s not what happened with Trump.
For all three men, politics is a central concern. Each is a potential 2024 candidate and each would like to spin this to his advantage as much as possible.
The overlap with the broader political conversation is particularly noticeable when we consider how Fox News has responded to each set of revelations. The network was much less likely than CNN or MSNBC to discuss classified documents in the context of Trump last year and much more likely to do so in the context of Biden in light of the recent revelations.
Over the past several weeks, the scale of what was found in Biden’s possession has grown, even as he and his aides have clearly hidden information from public view. One would therefore be advised to be cautious in assuming no more revelations about scale or intent are forthcoming.
In light of what’s known, though, there’s simply no comparison between the three situations. All three officials had documents that may turn out to have been classified. Only one refused to turn those documents over and hid hundreds of them from the government for more than a year.