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You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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The Biden Document Discovery (And How It Compares to Trump)
CNN One Thing
Jan 15, 2023

When we learned Obama-era classified documents were discovered in multiple locations used by President Joe Biden after his time as vice president, some Republicans were quick to draw comparisons to former President Donald Trump, who is also under investigation for mishandling government documents. But just how similar are the two circumstances? We break down what we know about each case, the special counsels tasked with investigating them, and the political ramifications ahead of a possible 2024 rematch between the two men.

Guest: Arlette Saenz, CNN White House Correspondent

Episode Transcript
Bianna Golodryga
We're going to take you straight to Washington, where Merrick Garland is now speaking. Let's listen...
David Rind
If you turned on the TV last Thursday afternoon, flipped over to CNN. You may have gotten a sense of deja vu.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
Good afternoon...
David Rind
We saw U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland walk up to the podium and tell the world that he was appointing a special counsel to oversee an investigation into the potential mishandling of classified government documents.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
This appointment underscores for the public the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.
David Rind
Now, we saw him do the exact same thing just a few months ago. But that announcement concerned former President Donald Trump. This one on Thursday was about the current president, Joe Biden. My guest this week is CNN White House correspondent Arlette Saenz. We're going to break down exactly what we know about these two cases, similarities, the differences and the politics ahead of a looming presidential election. From CNN, this is One Thing I'm David Rind.
David Rind
Arlette, I wonder if we can quickly lay out the circumstances surrounding these document investigations, both for the current president, Joe Biden and the former president Donald Trump, because there's just a lot to keep track of here. And I want to get a real sense of how they compare if if they even do it all. So let's start with President Biden. What should we know here?
Arlette Saenz
Well, we know that just this week it was revealed that Biden's team found classified documents at two locations that he has been associated with in the past. Now, I want to kind of run you through the timeline. This has been provided by the White House counsel, as well as Attorney General Merrick Garland, who when he announced the special counsel, really gave some more of the details about what exactly the DOJ got this information. Now, the first classified documents were found on November 2nd. This occurred as Biden's personal lawyers were closing down the D.C. office that he had at the Penn Biden Center. That was one of the organizations that he worked with in his post vice presidency era.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
That office was not authorized for storage of classified documents.
Arlette Saenz
Now, the lawyer saw that there were some confidential markings on some items in one envelope and ultimately decided to turn all of those documents that were on hand over to the National Archives.
David Rind
They raised the red flag right away.
Arlette Saenz
Yes. The White House saying that they've been trying to follow the proper protocol on all this and notified the National Archives about it. The archives then in turn notified the Justice Department on November 4th.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
On November 9th, the FBI commenced an assessment consistent with standard protocols to understand whether classified information had been mishandled in violation of federal law.
Arlette Saenz
Now, as all this was playing out, there was a decision made at DOJ to go ahead and assign a U.S. attorney to review all of this. They decided to appoint a Trump appointed U.S. attorney based in Chicago, John Lausch. That appointment was made on November 14th, and he started to get to work to determine what has happened in this case. Now, fast forward a month.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
On December 20th. President Biden's personal counsel informed Mr. Lausch that additional documents bearing classification markings were identified in the garage of the president's private residence in Wilmington, Delaware.
Arlette Saenz
So that adds another layer to all of this, as now there are two locations where classified documents had been found. Now, on January 5th, Attorney General Merrick Garland was briefed on the ongoing review being conducted by a U.S. Attorney Lausch and was recommended that a special counsel was warranted. He ultimately decided to go ahead and go down that route and appointed a former Trump appointed attorney, Robert Herr, to lead that special counsel.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
I am confident that Mr. Herr will carry out his responsibility in an even handed and urgent matter and in accordance with the highest traditions of this department.
Arlette Saenz
Now, on January 12th, Biden's counsel notified the Justice Department that they found another document at his Wilmington home during a search that they had concluded this week. But there are just so many questions about the timeline because White House counsel, when they first shared that they had found these documents, they only shared that one bit about documents being found at the Penn Biden Center. It wasn't until later that they publicly shared that they had found those documents at the Wilmington Resident's home. So there's a lot.
David Rind
Right. Those ones in December, they knew about that.
Arlette Saenz
They knew and they.
David Rind
Shared the initial batch. So what's what's the deal?
Arlette Saenz
Well, they shared it with the Justice Department, but it wasn't included in that timeline of events that they had laid out over the course of the past week initially. So there are certainly a lot of questions about how exactly they came to these decisions, you know, to go ahead and acknowledge the documents that were at the Penn Biden Center, but then waited to acknowledge that there were documents elsewhere.
David Rind
Do we know what these documents are like? What was in what they found?
Arlette Saenz
Yeah. So we have an idea of some of the documents, what was contained in them, in the documents that were found at the Penn Biden Center. There were memos related to Ukraine, Iran and the United Kingdom, but there was also a lot of personal stuff relating to Beau Biden, who passed away in 2015. Now, additionally, there has also been a memo from then Vice President Biden to his boss, President Barack Obama, as well as two briefing memos that were preparing then Vice President Biden for phone calls, one of those with the British prime minister and another with Donald Tusk. He's a former prime minister of Poland who then served as president of the European Council. But it's unclear how much of that material remains sensitive at the time now. It also included unclassified papers that fell under the Presidential Records Act. Of course, the Presidential Records Act is something that every administration has to comply with. You know, staffers are given memos telling them exactly how to determine what needs to go towards the presidential records. And so that is all a typical protocol that is followed through the White House as people are transitioning out of office.
David Rind
So this initial batch was from the time that Biden was getting ready to leave the White House when he was vice president. Do we have a sense of like what those days were like that could have contributed to something like this happening?
Arlette Saenz
Yeah, I mean, we've talked to people who were around during those days and familiar with the setup during those days, and it was a very chaotic final sprint.
Barrack Obama
For the final time as president. I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Arlette Saenz
You'll remember there is that Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony where Obama surprised Biden with that medal.
President Joe Biden
Ukraine, like every country in Europe, has a right to determine its own path.
Arlette Saenz
He also made last minute trips in the final very days before the inauguration to Ukraine and Davos. So there was a lot happening in the vice president's office and aides were scrambling to try to gather up these documents that needed to go one for the Presidential Records Act, but also some of his personal belongings. Now, there are still questions about who exactly packed up these documents, how they made their way to the Wilmington residence and the Penn Biden Center. But currently, we know that former aides have been questioned by investigators, at least in that initial review, trying to piece together how exactly this all came about. But there is a lot of questions still about how these documents got packed up.
David Rind
Right. So, obviously, a lot of questions on the timeline and we'll come back to that in a bit. But I want to shift gears to former President Trump, because for those who have not been paying attention to that particular story about handling of documents, it could be a little bit confusing. What what do we know happened there?
Arlette Saenz
Yeah, So this is, you know, similar but also different case. That is something that people have been stressing over and over now. There have been attempts for years now to get documents that people believed former President Donald Trump took down to his home at Mar a Lago.
Evan Perez
In June, Justice and FBI officials paid a visit to Mar-a-Lago to discuss possible classified documents that were still being stored there.
Arlette Saenz
Despite the National Archives worked with Trump's office to try to get some documents. Then later, the DOJ subpoenaed for more documents, which in part Trump did comply with. But then in August of 2022, the Justice Department got a court approval to search Mar a Lago.
John Berman
Even as the details are preliminary, the implications are immense. A federal search warrant issued and executed at the home of a former president of the United States.
Arlette Saenz
And that is when those FBI agents went in and searched the grounds there and took away boxes of materials.
Kaitlin Collins
He adds, quote, 'They even broke into my safe.' And he compared this to Watergate, reverse Watergate, and maintains it's an effort to stop him from running for president in 2024.
Arlette Saenz
Now, there is one important thing to note. There are many, many more documents that were found at Mar a Lago than what is known so far in the Biden case. You know.
David Rind
There was like boxes and boxes and boxes.
Arlette Saenz
Boxes and boxes and like just in that August search, there was 103 classified documents and they ranged from confidential to secret to top secret. So there is just a wide array of things that are in that Mar a Lago search. And really, that's the first time in American history that a former president was searched as part of a criminal investigation.
David Rind
Right. So that brings me to the idea of these two special counsels investigating these two different presidents here. Are they looking at the same kind of stuff for the same kind of, you know, possible consequences? Like what? What are the differences there?
Arlette Saenz
Well, the key distinction here is that former President Donald Trump, it's not just that he had the classified documents, it's the obstruction angle. And that is what investigators are looking towards, whether there was any efforts to conceal these documents. You know, the stonewalling that occurred, they have been trying to get these documents that were believed to be at Mar a Lago for a very long time. They're also looking into whether he might have mishandled information that's regarding to national defense and federal records. And one thing that you hear repeatedly from Biden's team is that they followed the protocol. They found these documents. They went to the National Archives. They are cooperating with the Justice Department. So implicitly, the White House and the president's lawyers and the president himself have been trying to draw this contrast, saying that we found these documents, we notified people about them, and ultimately they believe that the review is going to show that these documents were inadvertently misplaced. Now we'll see what ultimately the special counsel determines. But those are some of the ways that this is different.
David Rind
All right, Arlette. I want to turn back to the current Biden White House and how they are dealing with these revelations, because they're being transparent with the National Archives and the DOJ, and then there's being transparent with the American people. So what has been the White House approach in terms of transparency and what has President Biden himself said about these document discoveries?
Arlette Saenz
Yeah, that's really the rub here. You know, one, they're trying to deal with this investigation that is happening over the documents, but they're also have been struggling with the messaging of it.
You heard from the attorney general. He said shortly after the documents were discovered, they that we did outreach, the president's lawyers did outreach to to the Department of Justice and Archives.
Phil Mattingly
We're not questioning that. That's something we're asking about. We're asking about...
I'm telling you that there's a process I just laid out with the processesis. And I'm telling you that we were trying to do this by the book.
Arlette Saenz
And so it's just raised a lot of questions about the White House's decision on how they handle it. This was a very, very tight group of advisers who knew what was going on. There are many aides who were completely left in the dark learning about this through media reports. And so it speaks to just how tight of a circle they have been keeping on this whole issue.
What has been transparent in this as well is that the White House counsel has led, has laid out in detail on Monday to all of you.
You haven't laid out everything, Karine. And you know that.
First of all, I can't talk about this, right, because it is the Department of Justice is reviewing it.
Arlette Saenz
There is one thing that his team argues is that they're limited in what they can share because these investigations and reviews are still underway. But bottom line here, there are many, many questions that the White House just simply isn't answering as this case is unfolding.
President Joe Biden
As I said earlier this week, people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously. I also said we're cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department's review.
Arlette Saenz
Now, when it was revealed that more documents were found at his Wilmington, Delaware, home, the President was asked about it. He hewed very closely to the lines that were provided by his White House counsel. But then he was also talked about his Corvette.
Classified classified material next to your, Corvette. What were you thinking?
President Joe Biden
Let me uh...
Arlette Saenz
One reporter asking him why he would keep it in a garage next to his Corvette. The president a little flippantly answered.
President Joe Biden
And by the way, my Corvette's in the lock garage. Okay, so it's not like you're sitting out in the street. But anyway.
So it was in a locked garage?
President Joe Biden
Yes. As well as my Corvette.
Arlette Saenz
Of course, a locked garage is a very different environment than where classified materials would typically be held. But the president again insisting that he takes classified documents in material very seriously and that they are trying to comply every step of the way with the DOJ.
David Rind
And you just, you know, laid out kind of all the ways that Biden's circumstances are much different than former President Trump's. Are Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere acknowledging those differences and that nuance?
Arlette Saenz
No, and in fact, a lot of the Republicans who are now slamming the Biden administration kind of neglected the fact that former President Donald Trump had classified documents at his own home down in Mar a Lago.
Rep. James Comer
Look what the Vice President doing with classified documents. We know that the president has the ability and the president only to declassify documents.
Arlette Saenz
You know, they are trying to seize on this. It's part of many of the investigations that Republicans have been trying to launch in these opening days of their control of the House.
Rep. Troy Nehls
And I tell you something, what needs to happen, in my opinion, a search warrant. A search warrant needs to be drafted. We need to get into his offices and look to see if there are even more documents.
Arlette Saenz
But they're not, like fully paying attention to the nuance of this. You know, Democrats, on the other hand, they have questions about Biden's handling of classified material post vice presidency, but they're also saying they believe he's complying in a way that's different than former President Trump. But really, this is created an opening for Republicans to have a line of attack at the former vice president. And now we're really at this unprecedented moment where there are now special counsels assigned to investigate the former president and the current sitting president. And it is likely it could happen that these two men could be running against each other in 2024. We know that former President Donald Trump has already announced his campaign. Biden's advisers have been gearing up towards a campaign waiting for a final signoff from him. But this is certainly going to be a topic that will repeatedly come up during the campaign. Trump is likely to use it as a talking point, saying basically, you know, the other guy has also had classified documents. There's a lot of Republicans trying to say that there is, you know, political bias in some of this. But certainly this is something that is going to play out over the course of a potential bid, presidential bid by these two men.
David Rind
Arlette, thank you very much.
Arlette Saenz
Thank you.
David Rind
On Saturday, after Arlette and I spoke, the White House issued a statement saying five additional pages of classified materials were found during the latest search of Biden's Wilmington home last week. The White House had previously said just one was found in a separate statement. Biden's personal attorney, Bob Bauer, attempted to explain the discrepancy, saying because his team did not have security clearances, they had to stop searching whenever they came upon a classified document and notify the government so they could take possession.
David Rind
One Thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me. David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Abbie Fentress-Swanson is the executive producer of CNN Audio. If you're enjoying the show, the easiest way to let us know is to leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. It honestly takes like 10 seconds and it really does help us out. Thanks, as always for listening. We'll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.