EXPLAINER: Comparing Trump, Biden, Pence classified papers
Classified documents keep showing up where they shouldn’t be.
The discovery of documents with classified markings at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home in Indiana follows the revelation of classified materials at President Joe Biden’s Delaware home and former office — and the seizure last year of hundreds of documents marked classified from Mar-a-Lago, the Florida residence of former President Donald Trump.
A look at similarities and differences among the various situations:
HOW MANY CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
PENCE: “A small number of documents bearing classified markings” were discovered last week at Pence’s home north of Indianapolis, Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, wrote in a Jan. 18 letter to the National Archives and Records Administration shared with The Associated Press.
In all, four boxes containing copies of administration papers — two in which “a small number” of papers bearing classified markings were found, and two containing “courtesy copies of vice presidential papers” — were discovered, according to Jacob. The discovery came almost two years after Pence left office.
BIDEN: It’s unclear precisely how many classified papers have been recovered from Biden’s home and former office. Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said earlier this month that “a small number of documents with classified markings” were discovered on Nov. 2, 2022, in a locked closet at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank in Washington, as Biden’s personal attorneys were clearing out the offices.
Sauber said Jan. 12 that a second batch of documents with classified markings — a “small number,” he said — had been found in a storage space in Biden’s garage near Wilmington, Delaware, along with one document located in Biden’s personal library in his home. Days later, Sauber clarified that six pages, not a single one, had been found in the library.
During a nearly 13-hour search on Jan. 20, FBI agents searching Biden’s Delaware home located six additional items that contained documents with classified markings and also took possession of some of his handwritten notes, the president’s lawyer, Bob Bauer, said Saturday.
TRUMP: Roughly 300 documents with classification markings — including some at the top secret level — have been recovered from Trump since he left office in January 2021.
In January 2022, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of documents, telling Justice Department officials they contained “a lot” of classified material. In August, FBI agents took more than 33 boxes and containers totaling 11,000 documents from Mar-a-Lago, including roughly 100 with classification markings found in a storage room and an office.
HOW QUICKLY WERE THE CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS TURNED OVER?
PENCE: Jacob said the records were discovered on Jan. 16, secured in a locked safe and retrieved by FBI agents on Jan. 19. The four boxes of papers were delivered to the Archives on Jan. 23.
BIDEN: After the materials were discovered at the think tank on Nov. 2, Biden’s personal attorneys immediately alerted the White House counsel’s office, which notified the National Archives, Sauber said. The Archives took custody of the documents the next day.
Biden’s personal lawyers then began examining other locations where records might have been shipped after Biden left the vice presidency in 2017. They found documents on Dec. 20 in his Wilmington garage and on Jan. 11 and 12 in his home library.
Sauber said that the Justice Department was “immediately notified” and took custody of the records.
On Jan. 20, Biden voluntarily allowed the FBI to search his Wilmington home, where additional documents were located.
TRUMP: A Trump representative told the National Archives December 2021 that presidential records had been found at Mar-a-Lago, nearly a year after Trump left office. Fifteen boxes of records containing some classified material were transferred to the Archives in January.
A few months later, investigators from the Justice Department and FBI visited Mar-a-Lago to get more information about classified materials taken to Florida. Federal officials served a subpoena for some documents believed to be at the estate.
In August 2022, FBI agents conducting a search retrieved 33 boxes from Mar-a-Lago while executing a warrant that showed they were investigating possible crimes including the willful retention of national defense information and efforts to obstruct the federal probe.
The search came after lawyers for Trump provided a sworn certification that all government records had been returned.
WHAT ABOUT POSSIBLE CHARGES?
PENCE AND BIDEN: There is no indication either was aware of the existence of the records before they were found and turned over.
It appears both sides turned over the records quickly, without intent to conceal. That’s important because the Justice Department historically looks for willfulness, or an intent to mishandle government secrets, in deciding whether to bring criminal charges.
In Biden’s case, even if the Justice Department were to find the case prosecutable on the evidence, its Office of Legal Counsel has concluded that a president is immune from prosecution during his time in office. Former special counsel Robert Mueller cited that guidance in deciding not to reach a conclusion on whether Trump should face charges as part of his investigation into coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
On Jan. 12, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the discovery of documents in Biden’s possession. Robert Hur, the former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Maryland, will lead the investigation.
TRUMP: The former president possibly faces exposure for obstruction over the protracted battle to retrieve the documents. And, since he’s no longer in office, he wouldn’t be afforded protections from possible prosecution.
In November, Garland appointed Jack Smith, a veteran war crimes prosecutor with a background in public corruption probes, to lead investigations into Trump’s retention of classified documents, as well as key aspects of a separate probe involving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and efforts to undo the 2020 election.
WHAT HAVE THE THREE MEN HAD TO SAY?
PENCE: In August, Pence told The Associated Press that he did not take any classified information with him when he left office, answering, “No, not to my knowledge” when asked directly if he had retained any such information.
As vice president, Pence would have had the power to declassify some documents, though he hasn’t said that he did.
BIDEN: Biden said earlier this month that he was “surprised to learn” that documents had been found at his think tank. He said he didn’t know what was in the material but took classified documents “very seriously.”
His team did what they should have done,” Biden said. “They immediately called the Archives.”
Biden told reporters at the White House Jan. 12 that he was “cooperating fully and completely” with a Justice Department investigation into how classified information and government records were stored.
TRUMP: Trump, who had the ability when he was president to declassify documents, has contended at times that he did so regarding the documents that he took with him — though he has provided no evidence of that. He said in a Fox News interview in September that a president can declassify material “even by thinking about it.”
The former president has called the Mar-a-Lago search an “unannounced raid” that was “not necessary or appropriate” and represented “dark times for our nation.”
WHAT ARE THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS?
PENCE: As he lays the groundwork for a possible 2024 White House bid, the document discovery thrusts Pence into the debate over the handling of secret materials by officials who have served in the highest ranks of government. He had previously insisted that he followed stringent protocols regarding classified documents.
BIDEN: His document disclosure could intensify criticism by Republicans and others who say that if Trump is guilty of anything, so is he.
There are also possible ramifications in a new, GOP-controlled Congress where Republicans are promising to launch widespread investigations of Biden’s administration.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has said, “I think Congress has to investigate this.” The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, has requested that intelligence agencies conduct a “damage assessment” of potentially classified documents.
TRUMP: The documents probe is one of many that complicate the former president’s bid for the White House in 2024, particularly after it became clear that the DOJ had launched a criminal investigation into the retention of top secret government information.
Trump and his supporters have described the Mar-a-Lago search as a partisan attack from Democrats.
During his 2024 campaign launch in November, at the same club agents had searched months earlier, Trump cast himself as “a victim” of wayward prosecutors and “festering, rot and corruption of Washington.”
Is DeSantis darkening Florida’s sunny open-records laws?
Florida has long been known for sunshine — not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation’s strongest meetings and records laws.
Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He’s also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state’s lengthy list of open-government exceptions.
“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state’s public access laws for three decades.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP’s perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.
Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.
But it runs contrary to Florida’s historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.
Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.
Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.
As this year’s Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis’ powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.
Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.
“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”
DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis’ plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.
Other provisions of the legislation would presume anonymous statements in news stories are false for the purposes defamation lawsuits and would treat accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination as intrinsically defamatory.
Petersen said such provisions appear to be a first nationally and could have a freezing effect on free speech.
But Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who is sponsoring the bill, said it is “a sincere attempt to try and fix the problems that exist in this type of law.”
“This bill would make it easier for someone who’s actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to pursue justice in Florida courts,” Andrade said.
The defamation legislation is just one of several DeSantis administration policies prompting concern among media organizations.
Earlier this year, a Florida trial judge upheld DeSantis’ assertion of “executive privilege” in refusing to turn over information requested under the state’s public-records law about his screening of potential state Supreme Court nominees. That case is being watched by national media organizations as it’s being appealed.
The Florida Constitution contains no specific mention of “executive privilege.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution, though courts have upheld the president’s prerogative to withhold documents to protect the confidentiality of advice received in the decision-making process. Governors in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington also have previously asserted the privilege.
Another DeSantis administration policy has slowed access to some public records. Television station WKMG reported last month that public records requests to some state agencies were being routed for review to the governor’s office, sometimes delaying their release by weeks or months.
Public protests at the Capitol also have been limited. Under a DeSantis administration rule that took effect March 1, demonstrations at the Capitol Complex are only permitted outdoors. Requests to use space in the Capitol Complex must come from state agencies, the Legislature or judiciary, must be “consistent with the agency’s official purpose” and cannot include displays with “gratuitous violence or gore” that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community.”
Florida’s open-government reputation already was fading before DeSantis took office in 2019, but that trend has gained steam. In his first year, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details forbidden to be disclosed about various public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for college and university presidencies.
This year, roughly five-dozen bills already have been filed proposing more open-government exemptions, Petersen said. Some of those would prohibit the agency that provides security for DeSantis from disclosing the governor’s travel arrangements — even after the fact.
Though DeSantis said he doesn’t support it, another bill filed this year would require bloggers to file periodic reports with the state if they are paid for posts about the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members or legislative officials.
The cumulative effect is that “open government and public records laws are very much under the gun right now,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for the public’s right to open government.
“Every year, we’re seeing the vast sweep of the original intention chiseled away – sometimes bit by bit, other times chuck by chuck,” Block said, “and it’s definitely not the way it used to be.”
Missouri debates ban on LGBTQ education for all grades
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers argued Wednesday over a bill that would ban most LGBTQ education subjects for all grades in the state’s public schools.
The proposal is modeled after a Florida education law passed last year, touted by supporters as protecting “parent’s rights” and dubbed by opponents as a “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.
The Missouri bill debated in a state House committee hearing would ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Florida law only prohibits teaching those subjects from kindergarten through third grade, although any lessons on those topics for students of any grade are also banned if they are not age-appropriate.
“Exposure to such topics is inappropriate for children, creating confusion which may then cause doubt in their identities,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, a former teacher and the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill. “It is not the place of the school to indoctrinate our children by exposing them to gender and sexual identity curriculums and courses.”
Kelley said her bill will need to be amended so it does not limit teaching for Advanced Placement courses.
In response to a question from a committee member, Kelley said she assumes that under her bill, educators would be banned from explaining the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage.
“It seems like the things that you want to prohibit are targeted to one particular group that you find disfavorable,” Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli told Kelley.
Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, a former teacher who is openly gay, asked Kelley if him “being gay in the classroom” and not hiding that from students would be limited under her bill.
“Did you ever inform your students on your beliefs?” Kelley asked Mackey.
“They did know I was gay,” Mackey said. “They would see my wedding ring and they would ask about it, and I would say I have a husband.”
A committee vote on the bill was not scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.
The White House, Disney, and LGBTQ advocates criticized the passage of the Florida bill last year. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bill was a victory for parents and would prevent “indoctrination.”
Secretary Blinken to Honor International Women of Courage Awardees at White House Ceremony
WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will honor a group of extraordinary women at the 17th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Ceremony on Wednesday, March 8, at 2:00 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the White House for the first time in the award’s history.
The annual IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since 2007, the Department of State has recognized more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.
The ceremony will be pooled press and streamed live on whitehouse.gov/live and state.gov.
Following the IWOC ceremony, the awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, where they will meet with American counterparts in various cities throughout the country.
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