US president Joe Biden is in hot water over his handling of classified government documents. But is it as bad as Donald Trump storing secret papers at his resort in Florida?
In November 2022, six days before Americans voted in important midterm elections, a “small number” of classified documents were discovered in the office of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
Then, several weeks later, another set of documents were found in the garage of the president’s home in Delaware.
Reporter: “Classified material next to your corvette – what were you thinking?”
Biden: “I’m going to get a chance to speak on all of this, God willing, soon, but as I said earlier this week… and by the way, my corvette’s in a locked garage, okay, so it’s not like they’re sitting out on the street.”
They were found by Joe Biden’s lawyers, who immediately returned them to the national archives, which referred the matter to the US Department of Justice.
Each time a new set of documents were discovered, the Justice Department was notified, but it wasn’t until January this year that it became public and the US attorney general appointed a special counsel council to investigate the matter.
“I’m here today to announce the appointment of Robert Hur as a special counsel…”Merrick Garland, US Attorney General
So, how serious could this be for Joe Biden?
If a document is classified it means there are strict rules about who can see it, how it’s transported and where it’s stored.
According to the Espionage Act it’s a crime to “willfully” retain such documents and not return them to the government official entitled to receive them when asked.
In Joe Biden’s case, the handling of these documents seems to have come down to carelessness rather than anything else – and the president’s team returned them when they were discovered.
The White House seems fairly confident that Joe Biden will be cleared of any wrongdoing, but there could still be political consequences.
Last summer, the FBI raided the home of former president Donald Trump and found 11,000 documents from his time in the White House.
More than 100 were marked “classified”, and Joe Biden criticised his predecessor.
Scott Pelley: “When you saw the photograph of the top secret documents laid out on the floor at Mar-A-Lago, what did you think to yourself, looking at that image?”
Joe Biden: “How that could possibly happen, how anyone could be that irresponsible. And I thought what data was in there that might compromise sources and methods… just totally irresponsible.”CBS 60 Minutes with Joe Biden
Far fewer documents were found in Joe Biden’s possession, and Donald Trump reportedly refused to return the documents that he had, which is why there was a raid.
For both of these reasons, the cases are different.
But those nuances won’t be taken into account by some voters, or, more importantly, by Joe Biden’s opponents, who now have a majority in the House of Representatives.
Republicans on the House judiciary committee have already announced an investigation into the president’s handling of the documents.
And the fact that he’s previously criticised Donald Trump’s storage of classified documents has led Republicans to accuse the president of hypocrisy.
“The latest example arrived this week when we learned that Joe Biden, fresh from lecturing us on how Donald Trump was a criminal because he had unauthorised possession of secret documents, that very same Joe Biden himself had unauthorised possession of secret documents. But don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. Unlike you and that despicably orange Donald Trump, Joe Biden is a ‘good person’. Joe Biden is so virtuous he has transcended temporal law. It’s not a crime when he does it.”Tucker Carlson on Fox News
But it’s not just Republicans who’ve bashed Joe Biden for his carelessness.
Several prominent politicians on his own side have come out to criticise him too.
And with the president reportedly planning to announce that he’ll run for a second term in office, the story has broken at a particularly bad time.
The one thing Joe Biden appears to have done differently to Donald Trump is that he informed the national archives and cooperated with the Justice Department throughout.
Donald Trump didn’t do that and is accused of obstruction.
The next presidential election will be in November 2024, and could end up being another showdown between the two men.
Something that helped Biden beat Trump in 2020 was that voters trusted him more – this scandal could damage that, and take away much of his ammunition.
The sight of officials searching the president’s home, and finding six more documents, won’t help either.
And there are unanswered questions which could continue to follow Joe Biden around.
“If the timeline is true it’s a problem for President Biden… They should really ask the question, really simply: who knew what when? And who made the order at the DOJ not to make it public? That these documents had come in? I mean they sat on the documents for months until CBS broke the news…”Ashley Etienne on CBS News
The Attorney General runs the Justice Department and is a member of Joe Biden’s government.
According to reporting by the New York Times, the president’s team was apparently hoping they could convince the Justice Department this was just a minor mistake.
But while they may have had their reasons for keeping it under wraps until now, the lack of transparency can only help fuel Republican attacks.
The rest of Joe Biden’s first term, and his prospects for winning a second, just got way more complicated.
This episode was written by James Wilson and mixed by Imy Harper.