Just like former President Donald Trump is in the middle of the investigation and in the face of a possible indictment for storage documents reserved for Mar-a-Lago after he left office, news broke that confidential documents from President Joe Biden’s time as vice president were found at the University of Pennsylvania center set up for Biden during his time out.
There were 10 classified documents at the Penn Biden Center, including “Obama-era intelligence memos and briefing materials covering topics including Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom.” CNN reported on Tuesday, citing a source familiar with the matter. The White House said in a statement that Biden’s personal attorneys discovered the documents in a locked cabinet there in November 2022.
Unlike Trump, who has refused repeated requests from the government to return its larger set of documents, Biden’s team has returned them to the government without being asked. But that still leaves the question of how and why they got there.
Attorney General Merrick Garland he commissioned John Lausch, a US attorney based in Chicago – and appointed by Trump – to further investigate the Biden matter and determine whether to recommend the appointment of a special counsel.
In theory, this investigation should proceed entirely separate from Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into the Mar-a-Lago documents. In practice, though, politics can get in the way. For months, journalists have been following the Trump investigation they reported on some skepticism within the FBI that Trump’s behavior deserves prosecution. This news adds pressure to ensure that any lawsuit brought by the Justice Department against Trump is truly bulletproof.
Biden Center Documents Investigation, Explained Briefly
Soon after Trump took office in 2017, the University of Pennsylvania announced that former Vice President Joe Biden would lead “a new center focused primarily on diplomacy, foreign policy and national security”: the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. The center secured office space in Washington, DC near the Capitol and opened in 2018.
According to an intern interviewed by UPenn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, about 15 people worked there earlier that year, on issues like writing speeches for Biden and helping him organize public conversations with future world leaders held on the Penn campus. The american perspective he also interviewed an intern, who said Biden had his office but “never been there.” Longtime Biden aides (and current administration officials) Steve Ricchetti and Tony Blinken he directed the center at various points. But Biden took a leave from downtown once his presidential campaign was announced in April 2019, and he hasn’t returned.
So, in November 2022, second a statement from White House attorney Richard Sauber, Biden’s personal attorneys were preparing to leave their downtown offices, when they found “what appear to be documents from the Obama-Biden administration” in a locked cabinet, “including a small number of classified tagged documents” . Per Sauber, Biden’s team notified the National Archives of the discovery the same day and returned the documents the next morning.
As for what the documents were, a source said CNN’s Jamie Gangel, Marshall Cohen and Evan Perez that there were 10 documents dated between 2013 and 2016 and that they included “US intelligence memos and briefing materials covering topics including Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom.” Also in those boxes were personal papers from the Biden family dealing with matters such as Beau Biden’s funeral, according to the CNN source, and some were in “an envelope with markings indicating they were the former vice president’s personal papers.”
So at this point there are a variety of possible explanations, from benign to less benign, depending on what exactly the documents are, how they got there, and evidence of Biden’s personal involvement. But initial reports on the documents suggest it is intelligence on politically sensitive countries.
Politico’s sources say Biden recently told aides he didn’t know confidential documents were the focus. But Garland in november asked US Attorney Lausch to further investigate this. Lausch was a Trump appointee, but both Democratic senators from Illinois had previously asked Biden to keep him in the post of U.S. Attorney so he could complete the ongoing investigation.
News of this situation has just become public, and so far it has not been reported whether Justice Department investigators think there may have been a criminal law violation. So right now, we’re still missing a lot of facts about what happened and have only speculations for much of it.
The Trump Mar-a-Lago Documents Investigation, Briefly Explained
The controversy over the Trump documents, however, has begun when the National Archives realizedjust months after Trump left office, several documents from his administration that should have been filed under the Presidential Records Act were missing. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued: Trump eventually returned some boxes that contained classified material, Archives thought he was still withholding something and asked the FBI to get involved, and Trump appeared to defy a grand jury subpoena deliver the documents.
Then, in August, the FBI obtained a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, and they found dozens of other confidentially marked documents there, according to prosecutors. We still don’t know exactly what was in those documents – it’s a bit of a pain to publicly assess the strength of cases like this since the information remains classified.
But the The Washington Post reports it that some documents contained “highly sensitive intelligence about Iran and China,” including a description of Iran’s missile programs, and prosecutors they expressed concern that the information could jeopardize sources of human intelligence.
Yet reports have suggested that DOJ prosecutors and FBI agents working on this investigation are not entirely in agreement on the strength of the case.
According to A December Washington Post report, the FBI was initially not at all sure they wanted to take on the case, and some agents were “not sure” they had a probable reason for a search. And in October, This is reported by Bloomberg News that some “internal critics” of the FBI were wondering why Trump would be charged when Hillary Clinton was not in her own insider investigation. (Clinton he had some classified information in email chains sent to his personal email account that he used for work; Trump had paper documents in boxes at Mar-a-Lago.)
Moreover, another Washington Post story suggests that the more ominous and speculative theories about Trump’s motives for keeping classified documents were unfounded, in the eyes of investigators. Instead, they came to believe that the reason for him was “largely his ego and desire to keep materials as trophies or keepsakes.”
That wouldn’t get him off the hook for violating the confidential information law, but it’s certainly a less obvious threat to national security than, say, the attempted sale of documents would be.
The differences between the two cases so far
There is a fundamental similarity here in that classified documents have been found at both the Penn Biden Center and Mar-a-Lago. There are also many differences, as well as other issues where you lack enough information to know what is similar and different:
There were allegedly 10 classified marked documents at the Penn Biden Center; over 300 were at Mar-a-Lago. Some of the Mar-a-Lago documents they were reportedly very sensitive, involving intelligence about Iran and China. Some of the Biden Center documents they were intelligence briefing materials on politically sensitive countries like Iran and Ukraine. Biden’s team says it returned the documents as soon as it discovered them, volunteering them to the National Archives without being asked. Trump, when asked by the Archives to return the missing documents, returned some but fought hard against returning others, including reportedly ordering a few boxes moved to hide them from visiting government officials. Trump insisted that confidential documents be kept at Mar-a-Lago. The level of Biden’s involvement in keeping the documents is unclear, but they were reportedly found among other personal documents of him. Investigators believe Trump kept the documents because of his “ego,” while it’s still unclear how the Biden Center documents got there.
Prosecutors will weigh all of these arguments when determining whether to press charges. But politics will also be hard to avoid. There were already domestic Trump skeptics before the Biden news broke, and they would already have powerful allies subpoenaed in the GOP-led House of Representatives. Now they will surely be more active in criticizing any perceived double standards – and Garland and Smith may think even harder before accusing Trump.
President Joe Biden looks on during a welcoming ceremony as part of the 2023 North American Leaders’ Summit at the Palacio Nacional January 9, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico. Hector Vivas/Getty Images