Molly Butler / Media Matters, photos via Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

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Right-wing media falsely claim that Biden’s handling of classified documents was similar or somehow worse than Trump’s

Several mainstream outlets correctly noted that Trump was charged for allegedly conspiring to obstruct the Mar-a-Lago classified documents investigation

After special counsel Robert Hur returned his final report on the investigation into President Joe Biden’s retention of classified materials, right-wing figures took to cable news channels to claim that Biden’s conduct was similar to or worse than that of former President Donald Trump. Several mainstream outlets, however, correctly highlighted that Trump was charged for allegedly conspiring to obstruct the investigation into classified documents kept at Mar-a-Lago, not just retaining documents.

  • The special counsel’s report on Biden’s retention of classified documents shows that Biden cooperated fully with the investigation and noted several key differences from Trump’s case

    • Hur released his report on Biden’s handling of classified documents on February 8, noting that Biden cooperated fully and returned all materials when asked. Biden also sat for a voluntary interview and allowed FBI agents to search his office and Delaware home for additional materials that had not previously been discovered. [CNN, 2/8/24]
    • Trump, however, allegedly refused to return documents to the National Archives when asked to do so and lied about it in testimony. Trump is also reported to have concealed information from his lawyers and investigators relating to where the documents were located and what materials he had in his possession. [The Associated Press, 6/9/23, 6/9/23; NBC News, 6/9/23]
    • Right-wing media figures have previously excused Trump’s possession of classified materials, even when Trump seemed to admit that he never declassified them. Trump and his defenders have made a number of false claims about whether Trump needed to, or in fact did, declassify the documents that he stored at Mar-a-Lago. Many of these defenses rely on Trump’s supposed authority under the Presidential Records Act; however, even longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove has acknowledged that it doesn’t protect Trump’s willful retention of classified documents. [Media Matters, 6/29/23, 6/15/23; CNN, 6/9/23]
  • Right-wing figures on cable news falsely presented the nature of Biden’s retention of materials as equal to or worse than Trump’s case

    • On his Fox News show, Sean Hannity claimed that the cases were similar based on supposedly “identical” images showing documents at Biden’s home and at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Hannity also claimed that Democrats were supposedly worried about the pictures of documents recovered from the Biden investigation, adding, “No wonder why in the days leading up to today, they were worried about what these pictures would look like and that they would be included in this report. Because it looks just like the ones at Mar-a-Lago to me.” [Fox News, Hannity, 2/8/24]
    • On Jesse Watters Primetime, Jesse Watters and former Trump adviser Stephen Miller claimed that Biden’s possession of classified materials was worse than Trump’s because the documents at Mar-a-Lago were “locked up in a secure facility.” Watters claimed that Trump's documents were “locked up in a secure facility” that was “guarded by Secret Service on an estate on an island,” while some of Biden’s were in a garage. Miller added that Trump has the “unmitigated right of the president of the United States” to “maintain, to control, to declassify” documents, whereas Biden did not have the same authority as vice president. [Fox News, Jesse Watters Primetime, 2/8/24; CNN, 6/9/23]
    • On The Ingraham Angle, Article III Project President Mike Davis falsely claimed that Trump was allowed to have classified documents “under the Presidential Records Act.” He stated that Attorney General Merrick Garland “made the decision to charge President Trump for retaining presidential records he’s allowed to have under the Presidential Records Act. … And then Garland made the decision not to charge Biden for having five sets of stolen classified records moved several times unguarded for years, accessible by Biden's Chinese agent.” [Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 2/8/24]
    • On CNN, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) similarly claimed that the case against Biden is worse because Trump had “declassification authorities” and was covered by the Presidential Records Act. Stefanik claimed: “There is a difference here. President Trump has, according to the Presidential Records Act, he has declassification authorities. Joe Biden does not have that when he was vice president of the United States.” [CNN, Trump Ballot Battle at the Supreme Court, 2/8/24]
    • Appearing on CNN, former Trump attorney Tim Parlatore excused Trump’s mishandling of classified documents by claiming they were mistakenly taken “in a very chaotic time” at the end of his term, while it appears Biden “intentionally took these things with him.” [CNN, The Lead with Jake Tapper, 2/8/24]
  • Several outlets pointed out the differences between Trump’s classified documents case and Biden’s investigation

    • CNN correspondent Evan Perez highlighted a number of differences between Trump and Biden’s cases, including Trump’s refusal to return the documents and “a number of other obstruction acts.” Perez noted that “Donald Trump refused to turn over documents, classified documents, after he received a subpoena that required him to turn it back over.” He listed several allegations of Trump’s obstruction, including “telling witnesses to lie” and “hiding documents when the FBI came to do a search of Mar-a-Lago.” [CNN, CNN News Central, 2/8/24]
    • Responding to anchor Brianna Keilar’s suggestion that Hur’s report will “politically invalidate” the charges against Trump, CNN political commentator Ashley Allison emphasized Biden’s cooperation with investigators and Trump’s refusal to return the documents. Allison stated that Trump “did not cooperate because he believes he has some other authority to do things that he doesn't after he was president. Joe Biden, on the other hand, did allow for the documents to be turned over and cooperated with the investigation.” [CNN, CNN News Central, 2/8/24
    • On CNN, Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) stated that Biden had “cooperated fully” with the investigation, returned all documents, and “allowed the FBI to search every room in his house,” while Trump “went to such great lengths to obstruct” his investigation. [CNN, The Lead with Jake Tapper, 2/8/24]
    • MSNBC legal analyst Andrew Weissmann outlined that a grand jury said that there was “a probable cause finding” and the government thinks it has “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that Trump had broken the law, while the special counsel investigation for Biden found “innocent explanations that we cannot refute.” Weissmann said the comparison is “very, very much apples and oranges.” He also stated, “Remember, it’s not a crime to make a mistake. … It is the actual retention of it, knowing that it's classified — what is charged with respect to former President Trump,” and explained that the special counsel found that Biden’s conduct “doesn't rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” [MSNBC, Deadline: White House, 2/8/24]
    • The Washington Post distinguished between Biden, who had a “far smaller” number of classified documents and “cooperated with investigators,” and Trump, who is accused of “deliberately misleading” authorities. The Post also noted that Biden “handed over the documents as soon as they were discovered,” whereas Trump had allegedly retained the stash of classified documents in his possession “even after he received a grand jury subpoena demanding their return.” [The Washington Post, 2/8/24]
    • The New York Times also stressed the differences between the two cases noting that Biden had “fully cooperated with the investigation.” In comparison, the Times wrote, “Mr. Trump has been accused of misleading the government for months over the hundreds of highly classified documents in his possession and of having his personal staff move boxes as officials were seeking their return” and “refused to return the materials.” [The New York Times, 2/8/24]
    • The Wall Street Journal stressed that even though Biden “was sloppy in holding on to classified material,” the special counsel “cited several material distinctions between the Trump and Biden case.” The Journal noted that “Trump refused to relinquish all the documents in his possession, lied to investigators and sought to obstruct their repeated efforts to get them back. In contrast, Hur wrote, Biden immediately surrendered his to the National Archives and Justice Department, consented to searches of his homes, sat for an interview in October with investigators and otherwise cooperated.” [The Wall Street Journal, 2/8/24]