House Republicans are racing to draw a straight line from newly discovered classified documents found by President Joe Biden’s personal attorneys to the legal jeopardy enveloping former President Donald Trump over his own storage of top-secret material at Mar-a-Lago.
And Democrats aren’t having it.
Less than 24 hours after Biden attorneys disclosed the November discovery of classified documents from his time as vice president, GOP lawmakers hustled to use their new House majority to launch inquiries into the matter — attempting to equate it to the circumstances behind last year’s FBI search of the Trump residence.
Incoming House Intelligence Chair Mike Turner (R-Ohio) on Tuesday sought a national security damage assessment on the Biden documents, warning that the president may have violated two laws that the Justice Department cited in explaining its Mar-a-Lago search. But Democrats pushed back quickly, contrasting Trump’s monthslong refusal to immediately turn over his documents to the National Archives with the immediate return of the Biden-centric material by the sitting president’s attorneys.
“From what I’ve heard so far, it seems like it’s being handled properly,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said. “It seems like they’re all doing it the right way, unlike what happened with President Trump.”
California Rep. Pete Aguilar, the House Democratic caucus chair, echoed that sentiment and slammed the GOP inquiries as “Republican hypocrisy at its finest. When the former president had 320 documents found at his personal residence, they said that ‘that will not be a priority.’ What President Biden did was disclose this to the Archives, let law enforcement know.”
Biden’s party argued that the handling of the matter — by his team, the Archives and DOJ — should increase confidence in the process. The Archives immediately referred the matter to the DOJ, just as it did when classified documents were discovered amid Trump’s files. And the DOJ quickly appointed a U.S. attorney to review the matter.
But House Republicans are eager to use their freshly gained investigative powers against the Biden administration. And the same Republicans who have clambered to defend Trump, called to defund the FBI over the search or shrugged off the controversy about his handling of sensitive national security secrets are now leading the charge to describe the Biden discovery as egregious.
“If then-Vice President Biden took classified documents with him, and held them for years, and criticized former President Trump during that same time that he had those classified documents … I wonder why the press isn’t asking the same questions of him,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise asked reporters on Tuesday.
Cardin said he wasn’t surprised that Republicans were trying to argue that the two incidents are the same, but “one person handled it right, the other person handled it wrong. … So, intent on criminal issues, particularly, [is] very important.”
The Biden White House immediately tried to emphasize the transparent handling of the records, which were found at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, while still being mindful of DOJ’s process. And close allies quickly pushed back on GOP-led investigations, stressing the differences between Biden’s attorneys quickly turning over the documents and Trump’s refusal to cooperate.
Democratic talking points circulated on the Hill and inside the White House on Tuesday that describe analogies to Trump’s situation as akin to “comparing apples and oranges.” They also accused Republicans pushing for investigations into the matter of having “no credibility” and being “hypocrites,” the same term Aguilar used.
“When former President Trump hid classified documents, the House Judiciary Committee thought it was a joke and House Oversight Chair Comer said that it was ‘not a priority,’” read the talking points, circulated by the outside group Congressional Integrity Project.
David Brock of Facts First USA, another outside group lending cover to the Biden White House, said in a statement that the GOP rush to investigate the Biden documents “is what we know to expect from the McCarthy MAGA House — the ink is barely dry on the corrupt bargain, and they’re already running full speed into a false equivalency narrative designed to confuse Americans and protect Trump.”
Trump’s refusal to turn over documents housed at Mar-a-Lago has loomed over his bid for a second term in the White House, and he now is facing an acute criminal threat from special counsel Jack Smith, who is probing the matter. House Republicans have warily defended the former president despite limited insight into the content of the documents or evidence that prosecutors have unearthed from Mar-a-Lago surveillance footage and witness testimony.
Some of the documents found at Trump’s Florida residence had some of the country’s highest security classification markings. And despite Trump’s frequent assertions, no evidence has emerged that he took steps to declassify the records before leaving office.
Additionally, the Archives tried and repeatedly failed to reclaim documents from Trump’s estate. It eventually had to refer the matter to the DOJ, which issued a subpoena to recover additional records. Trump’s resistance to that subpoena — and DOJ’s belief that additional documents remain unaccounted for — has led to concerns about willful retention of documents, rather than negligence, as well as the prospect of obstruction of justice.
Though much still remains unknown about the Biden documents, reports and statements so far indicate that the former vice president did not stash classified secrets at his personal residence and that his team immediately returned them without prompting from the Archives or the Justice Department. Initial reports also suggest that Trump possessed scores more classified documents than the number discovered at Biden’s office, an important detail prosecutors scrutinize in criminal cases involving classified documents.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats are already taking steps to probe the Biden incident, though Democrats were predictably more restrained.
In his letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Turner warned that Biden could be “in potential violation of laws protecting national security,” including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act.
“Those entrusted with access to classified information have a duty and an obligation to protect it. This issue demands a full and thorough review,” he wrote.
Incoming Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) is also expected to send a letter to the Archives.
Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he wants his committee to be briefed “on what happened both at Mar-a-Lago and at the Biden office as part of our constitutional oversight obligations” but drew a distinction between the two, based on what he knows so far.
“The latter is about finding documents with markings, and turning them over, which is certainly different from a monthslong effort to retain material actively being sought by the government. But again, that’s why we need to be briefed,” Warner said.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, praised Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland for their handling of the situation.
“Unlike Donald Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr, Merrick Garland is not acting like the President’s personal lawyer,” Durbin said.
Heidi Pryzbyla and Chris Cadelago contributed to this report.