Joe Biden and Donald Trump have both recently been involved in controversies – as well as subsequent investigations — involving their handling of classified materials after leaving office. The latest Economist/YouGov poll compares Americans' perceptions of these events, finding that while more Americans believe Biden has been cooperative relative to Trump, a larger share approves of the ongoing investigation into Biden's actions than approves of the investigation into Trump's. This apparent discrepancy is driven in part by Republicans' relative willingness to say Trump is uncooperative and took documents intentionally – and relative disapproval of investigations into Trump compared to Biden.
Americans are more likely to think Biden's actions were unintentional. This is partly due to partisan differences. Just 39% of Americans believe Biden intentionally took documents, while 28% believe he did not; 33% are unsure. Half believe Trump's actions were intentional.
While few Democrats (17%) believe Biden intentionally took classified documents with him after leaving office, a majority of Republicans (70%) believe he did. Perceptions of Trump's intentions are reversed: 31% of Republicans believe the former president took classified documents intentionally compared to 71% of Democrats.
In terms of their perceived cooperation in returning the documents they took – intentionally or not — Americans are more likely to see Biden as cooperative (40%) than Trump (29%). While the vast majority of Democrats (66%) believe Biden has cooperated, fewer Republicans (53%) – though still a majority — believe Trump has cooperated. Only around one in four Republicans (23%) think Biden has cooperated and a slightly smaller share of Democrats (16%) believe Trump has.
Even though Americans are divided in their perceptions of each man's intentions, majorities are supportive of the investigations into their actions regarding the handling of classified materials after leaving office. A total of 76% strongly or somewhat approve of the Justice Department investigating Biden and slightly fewer — 64% — approve of its investigation into Trump.
While Democrats are just 10 percentage points more likely to approve of the investigation into Trump's actions over the one into Biden's (85% vs. 75%), the gap among Republicans is 35 points, with far more approving of the Biden investigation (86%) than the Trump one (50%). Independents are 13 points more likely to approve of investigating Biden (69%) than Trump (56%).
Do Americans believe Joe Biden and Donald Trump taking classified documents with them was about the same and should be treated similarly, or do they believe one offense was more serious than the other? Most Democrats (58%) believe one offense was more serious, while just 28% believe they are the same. Most Republicans (55%), on the other hand, say they are the same, while 37% say one was worse than the other. When asked whose offense, specifically, was worse, more Americans say Trump's (28%) over Biden's (15%); 40% say they're about the same and 17% aren't sure.
When asked broadly about the violations Biden and Trump have been accused of, the vast majority of Americans — 71% — say they strongly or somewhat support the Presidential Records Act, which establishes that official presidential documents and classified materials must be preserved and given to the National Archives when a president leaves office; just 10% oppose it. Yet nearly half of Americans believe that presidents very often (22%) or somewhat often (22%) take classified documents with them after leaving office. But that doesn't mean Americans believe taking classified documents only deserves a slap on the wrist: Most people believe doing so is a very (39%) or somewhat (32%) serious offense.
— Linley Sanders contributed to this article
See the toplines and crosstabs from the Economist/YouGov poll conducted on January 14 - 17, 2023 among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens.
Methodology: Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to June 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (34% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.
Image: Getty (Kevin Dietsch)