Comparing the classified document discoveries plaguing Biden, Trump and Pence


WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence are all facing scrutiny over their possible misuse of classified documents.

In all three cases, sensitive government materials were found in locations where they should not have ended up. But there are key differences that distinguish each situation, including how Biden, Trump and Pence responded to the discovery of documents and how aggressively the Justice Department is currently investigating.

Here’s a breakdown of the similarities and differences between the Biden, Trump and Pence cases.

Biden and Pence’s situations are similar – their attorneys discovered the classified documents, alerted the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and turned over the papers. In Biden’s case, FBI agents later found additional documents when they searched his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

The driveway to President Joe Biden's home in Wilmington, Delaware is seen from the media van on Friday, January 13, 2023.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Trump went a different way. After leaving the White House, NARA found materials were missing. In May 2021, they contacted Trump’s attorneys, who spent months negotiating the voluntary return of several boxes of important documents.

The Justice Department obtained a subpoena in May 2022, a year after NARA first flagged it, after suspecting Trump was still holding some classified records. Trump returned more files but did not return everything in his possession. The FBI later in August executed a search warrant at his resort town of Mar-a-Lago, where additional documents were found. The search marked the first time in American history that a former president’s home was searched as part of a criminal investigation.

The exact number is unknown in Biden’s case. About 20 classified documents were seized before the FBI searched Biden’s Wilmington home. The FBI uncovered more classified files in this search, but neither side has publicly disclosed the exact number of additional documents found.

More than 325 secret records have been recovered for Trump. This includes documents voluntarily returned to NARA, subpoenaed to the Justice Department, and found by the FBI.

With Pence’s situation, CNN has reported that his team found about a dozen documents at his Indiana home.

Some of Biden’s documents have been marked “top secret,” which is the highest level of classification. Some of these documents were labeled “SCI,” which stands for “Sensible Compartmented Information,” referring to highly sensitive material obtained from US intelligence sources.

At least 60 of the Trump documents were marked “top secret,” including some files with SCI marks. There were also some documents called “SAP” which stands for “Special Access Programs” and is used for documents closely associated with special protocols for accessing the material.

A source briefed on some of Pence’s documents previously told CNN that the government papers recovered from his home were “subordinate” classified, with no SCI or SAP markings.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has hired special prosecutors to investigate Biden and Trump. The Trump affair is being investigated by Special Counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed in November. And the Biden affair is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Hur, who was appointed in January.

CNN previously reported that the FBI and Justice Department are conducting an investigation into Pence’s documents and how they ended up at his home. This is less than a full blown criminal investigation.

The Trump investigation is the most advanced. Federal prosecutors received a subpoena, demanding the return of all classified documents, and tried to scorn Trump when he didn’t fully comply. Investigators also got a judge to approve a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago, and CNN reported that there is an active Washington, DC-based grand jury that recently heard testimony.

This file image, contained in a Justice Department court filing dated Aug. 30, 2022 and partially redacted by the FBI, shows a photo of documents seized during the FBI's Aug. 8 search of former President Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago -Property in Florida.

There were no known subpoenas or search warrants in the Biden investigation, although the FBI conducted voluntary interviews with some people on Biden’s team who handled documents.

There are no known subpoenas, search warrants, or FBI interviews in the Pence-related review.

Biden and Pence both claim they contacted NARA early on to return missing documents and are cooperating fully with the Justice Department.

Whether intentional or not, Trump consistently missed opportunities to return the documents to the government. Prosecutors eventually concluded that deliberate attempts may have been made to hold the documents, and Trump is now being investigated for possible obstruction.

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