Several mainstream media outlets are manufacturing a political narrative that the discovery of classified documents at the homes of both President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence should alleviate pressure on disgraced former President Donald Trump, who not only took a vast trove of federal records but also refused to give them back.
Biden and Pence have both cooperated with federal investigators to recover and return documents that belong to the government, and both situations have rekindled scrutiny at the overall system of federal document classification and retention, which appears to be in serious need of reform. Their two examples stand in stark contrast to Trump’s behavior, and possible misconduct, regarding his own handling of government records.
According to reporting, Trump repeatedly obstructed the government’s efforts to retrieve documents inappropriately removed from the White House to his home in Florida. First, his legal team tried to excuse their mishandling of records by claiming the documents had been hastily packed away after his failed coup, before they later falsely told the government that they had returned all of the documents upon request. Evidence later emerged that Trump or his team were moving documents around his estate to evade discovery, as part of Trump’s ongoing defiance of a federal subpoena to return the materials.
This was the context of events that culminated in an August 2022 search of Trump’s residence by the FBI, which recovered hundreds of classified items among thousands of other government records. Trump then responded to these events by falsely claiming the government records were his personal property and that he had actually declassified the relevant materials, as well as making multiple threats of violence via his supporters if he were ever indicted for his potentially criminal behavior.
There is no reason to be “evenhanded” between completely different cases
CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel, who co-authored the network’s original breaking story in the Pence case, pointed out Wednesday night on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that “the Justice Department, this is Merrick Garland’s Justice Department, they want to appear evenhanded, as if they are treating all of these cases the same.” However, she added: “I think it is important to remember the Donald Trump case and the Joe Biden case and the Mike Pence case are very, very different. Trump had hundreds of documents. The intent, the obstruction, not — you know, holding on to these documents — is vastly different from how the Biden team reacted and cooperated.”
The problem here is that Gangel herself, and many others in mainstream media, spent crucial time this week saying that the Biden and Pence cases may both influence the Justice Department against taking any real action against Trump.
Trump’s misconduct is blatantly worse — but reporters still suggest he’s now off the hook legally
Gangel had previously asserted multiple times that the Pence and Biden cases together could help Trump’s legal situation, despite the clear and obvious differences. For example, Gangel appeared on the January 24 edition of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper and proclaimed that “even though his situation is completely different” the disgraced ex-president would gain some legal cover from the discovery of documents at Pence’s home.
Gangel later appeared during The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, where both she and CNN chief national affairs analyst Kasie Hunt discussed the key differences of Trump’s obstruction versus Pence’s and Biden’s cooperation. “What we've seen thus far with both Biden and with Pence is vastly different from Donald Trump,” Gangel said, “who at the very least seemed to want to take all of these things as souvenirs or for whatever, and then wouldn’t give them back.”
But later that night, appearing on Anderson Cooper 360, Gangel again said that these developing stories could help Trump, even as she reiterated his pattern of obstruction: “He clearly wanted to keep those things as souvenirs or for whatever and fought giving them back. But it may help him legally. So, you know, the issue of intent, which we've looked at with Trump. It just may be that Merrick Garland decides that there are so many of these cases that the Justice Department may decide not to bring charges.”
Gangel is not alone among CNN commentators promoting this argument. Former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tom Dupree said Tuesday that for the special counsels in both the Trump and Biden cases, “I don't see how you can help but factor in what’s going on with Pence as a calculus in your determination” as to whether to recommend criminal charges, adding, “Any distinctions among the situations of the three main players, I think are going to be lost on a large fraction of the American public.” (Dupree's assessment that the public won’t understand the basic differences in these three cases could be read as a stinging indictment of the reporting provided by CNN and other news outlets.)
CNN political analyst Margaret Talev also proclaimed, “I think, Pence revelations aside, the drip, drip of the Biden discoveries does defuse this issue, takes it off the table as a real weapon to use against Trump.” (Talev never actually explained why the Biden situation would act as a buffer for Trump.)
The New York Times also ran an article Tuesday comparing the Biden and Trump cases, effectively disregarding the relevant facts that distinguish them.
Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker noted that the “cases are markedly different in their particulars, as has been noted repeatedly,” contrasting Biden’s cooperation with Trump’s obstruction. He continued, however: “But they are similar enough that as a practical matter Democrats can no longer use the issue against Mr. Trump politically, and investigators may have a harder time prosecuting him criminally.”
After proclaiming that the Biden case would neutralize any political attacks against Trump, the article briefly mentioned the emerging Pence case, arguing that people following the news would be led to believe misbehavior on the scale we saw from Trump was commonplace: “The public perception that everyone does it will only be fueled by the latest discovery of classified documents at the Indiana home of former Vice President Mike Pence.”
As the Pence story further developed on Tuesday, The Associated Press joined the chorus of false equivalency, misleadingly claiming “While a very different case, the Pence development could bolster the arguments of Trump and Biden, who have sought to downplay the significance of the discoveries at their homes.”
Yet another AP article Wednesday morning sought to present a further false equivalence of scandals between the Trump and Biden camps, even as it included the glaring differences:
Trump, a Republican, took it as an affront that the government came searching his quarters for classified material he wasn’t supposed to have, even though he fought efforts to reclaim them for months, and the government was forced to issue a subpoena to get them. Aides to Biden, a Democrat, say they cooperated quickly and fully when such material was found at a former office in Washington, though they waited for months to make public what had happened.
The obvious fact should be that the Pence and Biden cases are more alike, and in turn both are “very different” from Trump’s situation.