This article has been updated to include information about the Jan. 11, 2023, revelation of a second batch of classified documents discovered by aides at President Biden's Wilmington, Delaware residence.
On Jan. 9, 2023, several outlets including CBS News and The New York Times reported the discovery of classified documents at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank containing an office once used by U.S. President Joe Biden from 2017 to 2019. According to these reports, the documents date to when Biden was vice president and were found on Nov. 2, 2022, by personal attorneys to Biden.
On Jan. 11, 2023, news broke that a second set of classified documents had been found at a location "associated" with Biden. That location, subsequent reporting revealed, was a storage container in the garage of Biden's primary residence in Wilmington, Delaware. At the time of this reporting, the number of documents and their contents have not been disclosed.
In 2022, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) compelled the recovery of hundreds of documents with classified markings from former President Trump's private club and Florida residence Mar-a-Lago. At the time, President Biden described Trump's handling of these documents "totally irresponsible."
Following the public revelation of classified documents improperly stored by Biden, some politicians and pundits suggested the discovery highlighted both hypocrisy and a double standard in how the Department of Justice (DOJ) handled classified document cases. In this article, Snopes compares and contrasts the two discoveries.
How Many Documents Were Discovered?
According to Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, the Biden-associated files contained "roughly 10 documents marked classified." This number does not include the second batch of documents. The New York Times reported in August 2022 that the Trump documents included more than 300 documents with classified markings.
What Are Their Contents?
CNN, citing an unnamed source, reported that "the items from Joe Biden's time as vice president … are 10 classified documents including US intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics including Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom." CBS News, also citing an unnamed source, reported that "the documents did not contain nuclear secrets." Some of these documents included the top secret classification. The contents of the second batch remain unknown.
The Trump materials contained "secrets about nuclear capabilities" among other documents. The cache of files also included material with the highest level of classification: "top secret/sensitive compartmented information."
Where Were the Documents Found?
The first batch of Biden documents were discovered in the office of a University of Pennsylvania-associated think tank physically located in Washington, D.C. According to Sauber, the special counsel to the president, "The documents at issue were discovered when Mr. Biden's personal lawyers were packing files kept in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center" and were "contained in a folder that was in a box with unclassified papers."
According to CBS News, "the center's sixth-floor offices sit at the foot of Capitol Hill … the center's staff largely comprises former Obama administration officials, many of whom have left the center to serve in the Biden administration." The second batch of documents was found in a storage container in the garage of Biden's Wilmington residence.
The bulk of the Trump documents were initially recovered from Mar-a-Lago. Mar-a-Lago is the primary residence of the former president, but it is also "a private club reserved for 500 members and a venue for parties and fund-raisers that are frequently attended by hundreds of people at a time." At the time of their initial discovery, many of the documents were contained in an unlocked storage area near places to which members had access.
Were the Documents Voluntarily Handed Over?
According to Sauber, "The White House counsel's office notified the National Archives and Records Administration of the discovery that day, and the agency retrieved the Biden materials the following morning." Though the discovery was made a few days prior to the November 2022 midterm elections, disclosure of the documents' discovery did not occur until January 2023. Sauber has indicated that the Biden administration is cooperating with NARA on the return of the second batch of documents as well.
The documents taken by Trump were recovered after he and his lawyers resisted several efforts by NARA to secure their return. They were recovered only after the DOJ issued a subpoena and had to be secured through an FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago.
The Bottom Line
While both the Biden and Trump cases appear to involve improperly retained classified information, the number of documents involved for each appears to differ substantially. Further, the Trump documents were found at a location that doubles as a pay-to-play club and event hosting space. Finally, the Biden documents were immediately returned to NARA, and did not require an FBI raid to be recovered.
Biden Docs Revelation Fuels Republicans as They Flex New Power. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/president-biden-classified-documents-think-tank-republicans-criticize-trump-mar-a-lago/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
Haberman, Maggie, et al. "Trump Had More Than 300 Classified Documents at Mar-a-Lago." The New York Times, 23 Aug. 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/22/us/politics/trump-mar-a-lago-documents.html.
Reid, Jamie Gangel, Marshall Cohen,Evan Perez,Paula. "Exclusive: US Intelligence Materials Related to Ukraine, Iran and UK Found in Biden's Private Office, Source Tells CNN | CNN Politics." CNN, 10 Jan. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/10/politics/biden-classified-documents-iran-ukraine-united-kingdom-beau-funeral/index.html.
Singhvi, Anjali, et al. "Inside Mar-a-Lago, Where Thousands Partied Near Secret Files." The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2022. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/12/15/us/mar-a-lago-trump-documents.html.
Timeline: The Government's Efforts to Get Sensitive Documents Back from Trump's Mar-a-Lago. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-search-timeline-mar-a-lago-justice-department/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.
U.S. Attorney Reviewing Documents Marked Classified from Joe Biden's Vice Presidency Found at Biden Think Tank. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-center-classified-documents/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2023.