Confidential files: Biden and Trump cases differ, but public may not see it that way

Biden administration is facing a serious political problem at a time when the the wind seemed to be at its back

The United States is in an extraordinary situation this weekend, with the current president and his immediate predecessor under separate investigations into how they handled classified government documents.

The US government takes very seriously the secrecy of the confidential information in its possession. People can and do go to jail in the United States for breaching the rules about how classified documents should be handled.

Senior Democrats and White House officials insist that documents discovered at premises linked to President Joe Biden were “inadvertently misplaced”, that there was no wrongdoing and the whole issue is very different from the material found at the residence and club of Donald Trump in Florida.

But whatever about potential legal difficulties, the Biden administration faces a serious political problem at a time when the wind seemed to be at its back and it appeared to be heading towards an announcement that the president would run for a second term in 2024.


The midterm elections proved better than most pundits anticipated, soaring inflation that had bedevilled his term in office so far seems to be easing and the president’s poll numbers are ticking upwards.

Last week his rival Republicans were publicly fighting with each other over whether Kevin McCarthy would become speaker of the House of Representatives.

The revelation that classified documents were found at an office used by Biden and in his garage at home in Delaware has changed the dynamic.

The story about secret documents in the garage next to his vintage 1967 Corvette car has the potential to capture public attention and it certainly eclipsed good news on Thursday about an easing of inflation.

The revelation fuelled claims that the Biden administration has been less than fully transparent in making public what it knew about these classified documents.

Republicans immediately began planning for official investigations into the issue, with some on the right starting to talk about impeachment.

After the discovery of classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and club in Florida several months ago, Biden went on prime time television and accused the former president of being “irresponsible”.

The new revelations about the documents will reduce Biden’s credibility in criticising Trump on this issue in future.

Whether it will have an impact on any decision to prosecute Trump over the Mar-a-Lago documents remains to be seen.

The Biden White House had wanted to portray itself as a much more serious in the role of governing than Trump had been. However, both Biden and Trump now are facing investigations by special counsels over their handing of classified material.

There are, however, significant differences between the Biden classified document controversy and the Trump Mar-a-Lago case.

As of now the biggest difference is the scale of the material discovered. In Trump’s case, several hundred government files marked as classified – along with thousands of unclassified documents and photographs – were found at his Florida club and residence after he left office.

In Biden’s case his administration has maintained “a small number of documents with classified markings” – possibly 10 – were found in a locked cupboard in an office at a Washington think-tank he occasionally used after leaving the post of vice president in 2017.

Subsequently, a search of Biden’s house in Wilmington, Delaware turned up another tranche of documents in a storage space in the garage. Another one-page document was discovered on Wednesday in an adjacent room.

CNN reported on Thursday that the Biden documents included briefing material for calls with the prime ministers of the UK and Poland when he was vice-president.

The Trump documents seem to have been moved to Florida during the chaotic final days of his presidency along with personal items and mementoes.

In Trump’s case there was also a dispute with the National Archives and the Department of Justice over whether all files taken to Florida had been returned after they sought them. This stand-off ultimately led to an FBI raid on Trump’s property.

The Biden administration has insisted it is fully co-operating with the process to determine what happened, while Trump has been in and out of court with the department of justice for months over the Mar-a-Lago documents.

In Biden’s case the White House has said the president’s lawyers discovered files on November 2nd when they were packing up offices at the Penn Biden centre in Washington.

The White House said on Thursday the president took very seriously the whole issue of classified documents and material.

“We are confident that a thorough review will show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced, and the president and his lawyers acted promptly upon discovery of this mistake. ”

However, the controversy over the documents has already blown the White House off course and left it open to claims that it has been less than fully transparent.

Earlier this week the White House confirmed the initial documents had been found at the think tank office just before the midterm elections in November.

However, the White House did not publicly mention the second tranche discovered in Biden’s garage which it had known about since December 20th.

Republicans argued that Trump was being treated differently to Biden, which probably contributed to the decision by US attorney general Merrick Garland to appoint a special counsel to examine the case of the president’s documents.

Biden’s allies insist there are significant differences between the Biden and Trump cases but the concern for the White House and Democrats more generally may be that the public will view both incidents as identical.