Right-wing media are disingenuously comparing the recent discovery of classified documents among President Joe Biden’s vice presidential papers at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement — a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania — versus the ongoing scandal involving disgraced former President Donald Trump’s refusal to cooperate in returning classified documents he’d kept at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
CBS News broke the story Monday, reporting that Biden’s personal attorneys discovered the documents while they were preparing to move out of office space at the Penn Biden Center in November 2022. The White House counsel’s office immediately notified the National Archives, and Biden’s attorneys have cooperated with the government on searching for and returning materials. NBC News reported Wednesday that Biden aides have “discovered at least one additional batch of classified documents” in a separate location as they continue what was described as an “exhaustive” search for items that belong at the National Archives.
By contrast, the scandal involving Trump's mishandling of government records first exploded into public view in February 2022, after reports surfaced that the National Archives had recovered 15 boxes of materials from his private residence in Florida, including classified records. (At the time, the Trump team’s absurd excuse for mishandling government records was that they were accidentally packed away amid Trump’s failed coup and hasty transition out of office.) When even more classified documents were later recovered during an FBI search of Trump’s home in August 2022, the public learned that he and his legal team had refused to cooperate in returning the documents for months, and had only partially relented after a monthslong legal fight with the National Archives that necessitated a federal subpoena.
Before the FBI search of his home, Trump’s legal team falsely asserted to federal authorities that they had returned all the materials sought by the Department of Justice. Trump then variously switched his story to claim that he had actually declassified the materials before removing them, or to claim that he was allowed to retain them because they were his personal records and not government property. Trump also threatened more violence from his supporters if he got into legal trouble.
Contrary to Trump’s sound and fury, Biden has publicly said he was “surprised” to learn of the story about documents stored in his former office, and that his attorneys “did what they should have done” in returning the documents promptly.
Right-wing media are completely ignoring these crucial distinctions in their rush to exaggerate Biden’s situation as being tantamount to Trump’s scandal. On the one hand is Trump’s clear evasion and refusal to cooperate with government requests to turn over official documents, which were illegally removed from the White House after Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the 2020 election and remain in office, compared to the Penn Biden Center taking it upon itself to notify the government and fully cooperate in returning documents that ought to have remained in federal custody.
These false comparisons seem to have multiple purposes. The first one is to muddy the waters on the investigation into Trump’s noncompliance with federal records laws. (CNN’s reaction to the Biden news initially fell for this line of thinking, though the network’s coverage has since improved somewhat.) In addition, right-wing media are trying to insist that despite his own team’s full cooperation, Biden really did commit some crime worthy of a serious criminal investigation, similar to the Trump case, or even impeachment by the newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives. And still others are pushing conspiracy theories that because Chinese donors have given money to the University of Pennsylvania, this would somehow give Chinese agents direct access to stored materials at the Penn Biden Center.
Comparisons to Trump investigation
- Fox News host Sean Hannity compared the mainstream media reaction to the Biden news with reactions to the Trump investigation: “The hysteria, well, it was as usual with anything Donald Trump, and the media mob, it was through the roof. Let’s see if they’ll apply this to Biden.” [Fox News, Hannity, 1/9/23]
- Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett claimed, “They don’t know what they’re talking about, but this certainly blows a hole in any ability of Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to go after Trump for allegedly mishandling classified documents,” adding, “No, his name’s Donald Trump so we’re going to go after him with a vengeance and threaten him with crimes.” [Fox News, Hannity, 1/9/23]
- Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee sarcastically remarked about a potential raid on Biden’s office similar to what was done to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence: “Well, of course they’ll be treated the same. You and I both expect that, right?” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 1/10/23]
- Former Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short explained the distinction that Trump’s legal team had not cooperated with the Justice Department, but still complained of a “double standard” by the government in the Biden case. Fox Business correspondent Jackie DeAngelis then falsely claimed without missing a beat that “the current sitting president when he was vice president did something very similar” as Trump. [Fox Business, Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 1/10/23]
- Fox News host Steve Doocy dismissed the “details are different in sheer numbers and stuff like that,” saying, “Nonetheless, when you have these kind of documents, just one counts. So it’s like, you know, people said, ‘Oh, he had 300, Biden only had 10.’ It just takes one.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 1/10/23]
- Fox News correspondent Alexandria Hoff compared Biden’s reaction to the discovery that Trump was sitting on hundreds of documents to the reaction of the documents in his office, “The president had been far more outspoken when it came to his predecessor’s possession of classified documents, which led to the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago.” [Fox News, America’s Newsroom, 1/10/23]
- Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz asked, “Why aren’t they raiding the Penn Center? If there were classified documents there, do we know that they’ve got all of them? We just assume and take their word of somebody else?” [Fox News, The Faulkner Focus, 1/10/23]
- Fox News commentator Jeanine Pirro claimed what Biden did was worse than Trump because Mar-a-Lago was more secure: “At least Mar-a-Lago was protected by the Secret Service. This is Penn. This is an academic institution.” [Fox News, The Five, 1/10/23]
- Fox News Radio host Guy Benson dismissed comparisons to Trump’s case, even as he apparently acknowledged the relative egregiousness of Trump’s behavior: “If you walk into a courtroom and you are trying to defend your client for robbery, you can’t say, ‘Well, the guy in the next courtroom over is convicted of two murders or accused of two murders so my guy isn’t so bad.’” [Fox News, Special Report, 1/10/23]
- Right-wing activist Mike Davis claimed that “President Trump had the absolute constitutional power under the commander-in-chief clause and the absolute statutory power under the Presidential Records Act to take — to declassify and take records,” before asking, “What are they doing about then-Vice President Joe Biden, who had no power to take these records? This is a clear violation of the Espionage Act for then-former Vice President Joe Biden to have these records.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 1/10/23]
- Fox’s The Ingraham Angle ran the chyron: “Double standard emerges in Biden doc scandal.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 1/10/23]
- Fox News legal contributor Jonathan Turley: “So there’s a lot of questions there. But at the end of the day, the same underlying crime exists, even if there are differences in aspects of the case.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 1/10/23]
- On Twitter, Hannity posted: “WHEN’S THE FBI RAID? Trump, Conservatives Unload Over Classified Docs Found at Biden Think Tank” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Right-wing strategist Chuck Castillo: “They found Classified Docs at BIDEN’S OFFICE from when JOE was VP... Joe DID NOT HAVE legal authority to un-classify anything as VP.. This was KNOWN prior to MIDTERMS and possibly before TRUMP’S FBI RAID... Let that SINK IN for a few minutes.” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Fox News host Dan Bongino: “Another massive Biden scandal erupts, as the media moved quickly into cover-up mode.” [Telegram, 1/10/23]
- Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera: “Biden’s own document embarrassment should just give DOJ more reason to drop probe of Trump’s documents. Neither had criminal intent. Why bother with bullshit?” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton: “So Biden’s lawyers ‘found’ the records with classified markings while ‘packing’ his records in preparation for an office move from Biden’s influence-peddling operation run through University of Pennsylvania? Interesting, I didn’t know legal services could include office movers.” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt, attacking a Politico article on the Biden White House’s cooperation: “Classic left-wing media spin: Article doesn’t even ask the most obvious question: Why wasn’t Biden case assigned to Special Counsel Jack Smith? It’s the same set of laws AND both subjects (Trump and Biden).” Previously, Hewitt argued in a September 2022 interview with Trump that every former president “has papers that should not be with them by accident,” only for Trump to continue to dispute the fact that he shouldn’t have possessed the materials. [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Fox News contributor Leo Terrell: “Attention, CNN and MSNBC. Are you going to report on the undisputed fact that Joe Biden has classified documents in his possession?” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
Calls for Biden to be investigated, impeached, or arrested
- Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller told Fox’s Laura Ingraham, “You need to appoint a special counsel to find out not only what is going on with these documents, but to look at every single residence, property, and office under Biden’s control to determine what other classified documents he has purloined in violation of federal law.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 1/9/23]
- The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh made a call for action in retaliation for the treatment of Trump: “We’ve got to call for investigations. We need to think about impeachment. This is, like, we have to treat it like a crisis because that’s what the left did. And we’re going to hold them to their own standard.” [The Daily Wire, The Matt Walsh Show, 1/10/23]
- Mike Davis called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to take action, saying he “must appoint a special counsel to investigate this just like he did with President Trump. It is a more blatant conflict of interest for Garland to investigate this with his boss being Biden.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 1/10/23]
- The Gateway Pundit ran the headline: “‘When is the FBI Going to Raid the fMany Homes of Joe Biden?’ Trump Responds to Reports of Classified Documents Found at Penn Biden Center” [The Gateway Pundit, 1/9/23]
- Judicial Watch: “RETWEET if you think Congress should investigate Biden family corruption!” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
- Right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza: “In one sentence, can anyone explain why Trump’s retention of classified documents constitutes a serious crime, if not outright treason, which should bar Trump forever from holding public office, while Biden’s retention of classified documents is benign and without consequence?” [Twitter, 1/10/23]
Conspiracy theories that the Biden documents are connected to the Chinese Communist Party
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested that documents at the Penn Biden Center were exposed to Chinese donors, saying, “Penn, as an institution, takes an awful lot of money from the Chinese Communist Party. I am not making that up. In recent years, Penn has received more than $50 million from anonymous Chinese donors. So the question is: Were those donors peering at the classified documents, the national security secrets, that Joe Biden had been stashing at the fake think tank that Penn set up for him?” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 1/9/23]
- Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon claimed that “the Chinese Communist Party financed the whole thing,” including “the whole University of Pennsylvania deal,” adding that the CCP “has bought and paid the Biden administration.” [Real America’s Voice, War Room, 1/10/23]
- Fox News host Greg Gutfeld fearmongered about Biden selling nuclear secrets to China: “I would not be doing my job if I didn’t raise the important questions that need to be raised about what actually happened. Do we know that there aren’t nuclear secrets in there? Perhaps he exchanged nuclear secrets to China for the 10%, that’s a question worth raising.” [Fox News, The Five, 1/10/23]
- Fox News host Jesse Watters claimed, “They opened the Biden Center with Chinese money. He announces he’s doing the Biden Center at UPenn. And all of a sudden, China quadruples their donations to the University of Pennsylvania.” He then fearmongered, “In terms of national security implications here, where do you think the Chinese have greater access? To a think tank 15 minutes’ bike ride from the Chinese Embassy … or a basement at Mar-a-Lago.” [Fox News, The Five, 1/10/23]
- Watters pushed the conspiracy again during his monologue: “The Chinese were paying Joe Biden a million dollars a year and it was just laundered through the Penn Biden Center. And just five miles away from the center was the Chinese Embassy.” [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 1/10/23]
- Carlson again pushed the conspiracy theory, saying, “There was a lot of money being raised and it was being raised by the University of Pennsylvania and it was being raised from foreign governments after the Biden Center opened. See the connection here?” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 1/10/23]
- New York Post columnist Miranda Devine said the university’s “long, incestuous symbiotic relationship with the Bidens” resulted in attracting “a lot of Chinese money.” [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, 1/10/23]
- Fox News host Sean Hannity baselessly claimed, “Now to put it simply, thanks to Joe Biden, America’s most sensitive secrets were floating around in an unsecured office that was bought and paid for by the CCP.” [Fox News, Hannity, 1/10/23]
- Right-wing TV host Benny Johnson: “Tucker Carlson just nuked Joe Biden from space for hoarding classified documents in his ‘fake thinktank’ -- potentially for the Chinese donors of UPenn to see. Was Joe Biden selling American National Security to the Chinese Donors in his fake think tank? Like father like son.” [Twitter, 1/9/23]