Special counsel report exonerates president legally — and ravages him politically
A wince-inducing report has just made it that much harder for U.S. President Joe Biden to quell concerns about his age as he seeks re-election.
The special counsel report released Thursday paints the 81-year-old president as suffering from mental decline. And it points to several examples from Biden's hours-long interviews with investigators.
They include Biden struggling to remember what years he was vice-president and being way off when discussing the year of his son's death.
This report landed amid stinging headlines involving the president's repeated references lately to having recent conversations with long-dead world leaders.
A furious Biden reacted at an impromptu evening news conference where he fumed at the special counsel for mentioning his dead son, Beau:
How in the hell dare he raise that? Biden said.
As proof of his fitness, he then cited his major legislative (new window) and other wins, like getting humanitarian aid into Gaza. However, he promptly undermined his own message by referring to Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the president of Mexico.
WATCH | 'My memory is fine':
President Biden responds to challenges about his age and memory
U.S. President Joe Biden denied special counsel Robert Hur's assertion that his memory has gotten worse over time, telling reporters his 'memory is fine' on Thursday night. He also responded to comments in Hur's classified documents report questioning whether he could remember when his late son, Beau Biden, passed away, saying, 'How in the hell dare he raise that?'
One obvious silver lining in the 345-page report is that special counsel Robert Hur refused to lay charges against Biden for improperly storing classified documents (new window) in three locations.
It criticized Biden for wilfully, and wrongly, keeping some documents; but it said others were accidentally mishandled. The report also credits Biden's behaviour as co-operative with investigators, contrasting it with Donald Trump's actions in a similar case.
So the report exonerated Biden legally. But ravaged him politically. The report struck Biden in a sensitive area, as voter skepticism about his age and ability pose a severe threat to his re-election prospects.
Neither Hur nor his investigators are health-care professionals, nor was assessing Biden's mental acuity the purpose of the report.
The report cited several reasons for not charging Biden. One was flattering: Biden's long record of public service. Another reason was damning: that Biden's obvious memory lapses would make it hard to convict him.
diminished faculties and faulty memory, the report said.
appeared to have significant limitations.
It also said these lapses were evident not only in interviews with investigators last year, but also in recorded 2017 interviews Biden gave to his book ghostwriter.
The report says Biden struggled to remember what years he was vice-president:
If it was 2013 — when did I stop being vice-president? it quotes him saying during an interview last fall. He left the vice-presidency in 2017.
The report also says:
He did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died, which was in 2015.
It also says his memory appeared
hazy when describing a debate about troop levels in Afghanistan during the Obama administration.
That debate was once important to Biden, says the document, yet he struggled to remember basic details, describing one general he agreed with as someone he disagreed with.
The bottom line:
Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview… as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.
The response from Biden's lawyers was indignant. In an addendum to the document, White House counsel described Hur's observations as both inaccurate and inappropriate.
The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events, said the reply, a letter from White House lawyers Richard Sauber and Bob Bauer.
Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report.… The President's inability to recall dates or details of events that happened years ago is neither surprising nor unusual.
Other witnesses also suffered memory lapses and the special counsel report treated them more charitably than it did the president, said Biden's lawyers.
Hur has reportedly donated (new window) to several Republican political candidates but was appointed to his current role by Attorney General Merrick Garland, and his appointment drew praise from some of his peers.
In public remarks, Biden also noted an aggravating factor. Those interviews with prosecutors occurred at a brutally unfortunate moment.
They happened over five hours, across two abnormally frantic days — Oct. 8 and 9 of last year, right after the Hamas attacks on Israel.
I was in the middle of handling an international crisis, Biden said in a speech Thursday.
As far as he's concerned, when it comes to the documents case,
this matter is now closed, he said.
It's far from guaranteed that American voters will agree.
Americans have told pollsters they are concerned about the mental and physical health of both leading presidential candidates, Biden and Republican Donald Trump. In a recent speech, Trump, 77, mixed up his primary rival Nikki Haley with Democrat and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But a new survey (new window) for NBC News says such doubts are worse about Biden: three-quarters of respondents, including half of Democrats, expressed that concern about him.
Biden's failing primary challenger this week criticized (new window) their party for ignoring the problem.
Shame on all of you pretending everything is ok, Rep. Dean Phillips posted on social media.
You are leading us — and him — into a disaster, and you damn well know it.
Phillips, who has been crushed by Biden in two early state primaries, posted videos of the president's recent verbal lapses.
In just the last few days, Biden has:
- Said, in two speeches, that he had a conversation at the 2021 G7 summit with Germany's Helmut Kohl. The former German leader has been dead since 2017, and left office in 1998.
- In another campaign speech, talked about speaking at the same 2021 G7 summit with France's François Mitterand, who died 28 years ago. Biden was talking about European leaders' horror about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and their relief about the end of the Trump presidency. "I said, 'America's back,'" Biden recalled. "And Mitterand from Germany — I mean from France — looked at me and said, 'How long are you back for?'"
- Struggled to remember the name of the group Hamas. While talking to reporters about hostage negotiations in Gaza, Biden paused awkwardly, then eventually referred, vaguely, to, "the opposition." Someone in the room blurted out the name and Biden said: "Yes, I'm sorry. From Hamas."
Barring a spectacular turn of events, Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president. He chose to run again, and is easily defeating his sole primary challenger.
The Democrats have rules (new window) allowing the party executive to name a replacement if a nominee resigns, dies or becomes disabled.
In any case, Biden won't be sidelined by criminal charges, while Trump faces 91 of them. The special counsel noted clear distinctions between this documents case and Trump's.
- ANALYSISCould Trump be disqualified from running? Here are 5 potential outcomes to historic court case (new window)
Biden co-operated with investigators, the report says, but:
Trump allegedly did the opposite. It cited allegations the former president lied, tried destroying evidence and obstructed justice after stashing state secrets at his Florida mansion.
This won't stop Republicans from crying foul about double-standards in the justice system; Trump and other party members did exactly that Thursday.
And it definitely won't stop them from using parts of this report as a centrepiece of Trump's re-election campaign.
Prepare to hear about this again, and again.
House Speaker Mike Johnson called it disturbing that Biden's mental state and alleged limitations are cited as reasons not to charge him.
A man too incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information is certainly unfit for the Oval Office, Johnson said in a statement.
Alexander Panetta (new window) · CBC News