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Comparing the classified document discoveries plaguing Biden, Trump and Pence

<i>Carolyn Kaster/AP</i><br/>The access road to President Joe Biden's home in Wilmington
Carolyn Kaster/AP
The access road to President Joe Biden's home in Wilmington

By Marshall Cohen, CNN

Washington — President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence are all facing scrutiny regarding their potential mishandling of classified documents.

In all three cases, sensitive government materials were found in places where they shouldn’t have ended up. But there are key distinctions that differentiate 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.

How they were found

The Biden and Pence situations are similar — their lawyers 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.

Trump followed a different path. After he left the White House, NARA realized that materials were missing. In May 2021, they reached out to Trump’s lawyers who negotiated for months over the voluntary return of several boxes of important documents.

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

How many were found

The exact number is unknown in Biden’s case. Approximately 20 classified documents had been recovered before the FBI searched Biden’s home in Wilmington. The FBI uncovered even more classified files during that search, but neither side has publicly disclosed the specific number of additional documents found.

For Trump, more than 325 classified records have been recovered. This includes documents returned voluntarily to NARA, turned over to the Justice Department under subpoena, and found by the FBI.

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

Classification level

Some of Biden’s documents were marked “top secret,” which is the highest level of classification. Some of those documents had an “SCI” designation, which stands for “sensitive compartmented information” and refers to extremely sensitive material gleaned from US intelligence sources.

At least 60 of the Trump documents were labeled “top secret,” including some files with SCI markings. There were also some documents with “SAP” designation, which stands for “special access programs” and is used for documents that are closely held with special protocols for who can access the material.

A source who was briefed on some of the Pence documents previously told CNN that the government papers recovered from his home were “lower level” classification, without any SCI or SAP markings.

Investigation status

Attorney General Merrick Garland brought on special prosecutors to investigate Biden and Trump. The Trump matter is being investigated by special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed in November. And the Biden matter is being investigated by special counsel Robert Hur, who was appointed in January.

CNN has previously reported that the FBI and Justice Department are conducting a review of the Pence documents and how they ended up at his home. This is less than a full-blown criminal probe.

Investigative steps

The Trump investigation has progressed the farthest. Federal prosecutors got a subpoena, demanded the return of all classified documents and tried to hold Trump in contempt when he didn’t fully comply. Investigators also got a judge to approve a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago and CNN has reported that there is an active grand jury based in Washington, DC, that recently heard testimony from witnesses.

There haven’t been any known subpoenas or search warrants in the Biden inquiry, though the FBI has conducted voluntary interviews with some of the people on Biden’s team who handled documents.

There aren’t any known subpoenas, search warrants or FBI interviews in the Pence-related review.


Biden and Pence both maintain that they engaged early with NARA to return missing documents and are cooperating fully with the Justice Department.

Whether it was intentional or not, Trump repeatedly missed opportunities to return the documents to the government. Criminal prosecutors eventually concluded that there might have been intentional efforts to hold onto the documents, and Trump is now under investigation for potential obstruction.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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