The same week Joe Biden publicly confused two European leaders with their deceased predecessors and passed on the traditional softball Super Bowl Sunday interview, a new report from Special Counsel Robert Hur described the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
The confluence of events raised further questions about the mental acuity of the 81-year-old executive, doubts that Biden did little to dispel in a defiant session with the press at the White House Thursday evening. Biden took particular umbrage with what he described as “extraneous commentary” contained in the report.
“My memory’s fine. My memory’s – take a look at what I’ve done since I became president,” Biden said sarcastically. “How did that happen? I guess I just forgot what was going on.”
The president took particular offense at the section in the report dealing with his memory about important personal events, including the years he served as vice president and when his son Beau passed away from cancer. “There’s even a reference that I don’t remember when my son died,” Biden said indignantly. “How in the hell dare he raise that? Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought, ‘It wasn’t any of their damn business.’” Biden’s response would have been more convincing had he not blanked on the name of the church where he got the rosary he wears in honor of his son.
“That is your judgment,” the president shot back when a reporter said some voters feel he is too old to continue being president. “I’m well-meaning, I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” an agitated Biden then told Fox News’ Peter Doocy. “My memory is so bad I let you speak.”
But if the remarks were an attempt to assuage fears that his age precludes him from doing the job, Biden may have done more harm than good. When asked about the situation in Gaza, he referred to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “the president of Mexico.”
Sisi is, in fact, the president of Egypt. But the cognitive ability of Biden was not the initial focus of the special counsel. It was, instead, Biden’s handling of classified information.
After a months-long investigation, the special counsel did not recommend criminal charges against Biden for mishandling classified documents, a result which the White House welcomed.
Hur did, however, detail the “significant limitations” of the elder statesman’s memory, descriptions the White House said were “inaccurate, gratuitous, and wrong.”
The immediate issue was the classified documents improperly stored at the Penn Biden Center, the president’s Delaware home, and at the University of Delaware. According to the special counsel, the investigation revealed how Biden “willfully retained and disclosed classified materials after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen.” But that evidence, Hur wrote, “does not establish Mr. Biden’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Biden, for his part, placed the blame for the document mishandling squarely on his staff.
While turning the page on the classified documents saga, the report simultaneously provides the most damning official account to date of Biden’s mental fitness, a critique the White House and its allies say is unfair.
During a five-hour interview with the special counsel last October, Biden reportedly forgot “when he was vice president” as well as “when his son Beau died.” The report also details how the president’s “memory appeared hazy when describing the Afghanistan debate that was once so important to him.”
After concluding that “no criminal charges are warranted,” the special counsel noted that had charges been filed, they would expect the president’s attorneys “would emphasize these limitations in his recall” to demonstrate that Biden did not knowingly violate the law.
“Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” Hur wrote. “Based on our direct interactions with and observations of him, he is someone from whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him – by then a former president well into his eighties – of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness.”
The White House was able to review the report and did not request any redactions before it was made public. All the same, Richard Sauber, White House counsel, wrote in a letter included in the report that Hur’s treatment of the president’s memory was not “accurate or appropriate.”
Sauber alleges that while the special counsel emphasized lapses in the president’s memory, Hur overlooked or dismissed similar lapses from others who were interviewed “as completely understandable given the passage of time.”
For his part, Biden sought to put the issue to bed. He noted during remarks to House Democrats that he had given his full cooperation to the special counsel, even sitting for an interview last October “in the middle of handling an international crisis,” a reference to the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. “Bottom line is the special counsel in my case decided against moving forward with any charges,” he said. “And this matter is now closed.”
While the White House accepts the result, sources close to the president still griped about how Hur, a nominee of the previous president, handled the business. “Now, I knew Robert Hur was a Republican who served in the Trump Administration,” an alum of the 2020 Biden campaign told RealClearPolitics. “But I didn’t know he was also a doctor.”
For most of his presidency, the White House has repeatedly sought to downplay the president’s age. Officials scoff in public and private at any suggestion that the 81-year-old executive is anything but energetic and up to the job. A series of gaffes continue to elevate the issue, however.
On Thursday, the president referred to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark abortion case as “Roe v. Ward.” The day before, Biden told donors at a fundraiser about speaking with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2021 at that year’s G7 Summit. Kohl left office in 1998 and died in 2021. In Las Vegas just days before, Biden confused French President Emmanuel Macron with French President François Mitterrand. The former is alive; the latter died in 1996.
The mistake even startled allies who previously put little stock in attacks on Biden’s age.
During the best of times, the presidency is a taxing job, even for a young man. Domestic and foreign crises make the challenge exponentially more difficult. A senior White House official, who left the administration on good terms, told RCP it was regular procedure to “make sure” Biden was “fresh for public appearances, especially when he is speaking to the press and the cameras directly.”
The official couldn’t recall any serious lapses in the president’s memory other than one moment when Biden forgot the music played at his wedding. The president pulled out his cell phone, opened Spotify, and found the song in question. Looking in from the outside, the official admitted being “alarmed the other day for the first time” when the president confused alive and dead world leaders and said Biden is “probably not” as sharp at the end of his term as he was at the start.
The scarcity of public appearances, the former official said, amplified the gaffes. “The problem is they keep hiding him, and then these things become more amplified because it is so rare that he engages and rare that we see him,” the source said. “That’s a huge problem.”
The White House did not return RCP’s request for comment, but White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed Biden’s confusion over names as par for the course for politicians who deal with dozens of world leaders on a regular basis. It happens, she said, to “many people” and “elected officials” before listing similar recent gaffes from Republicans.
“On Sunday, Speaker Johnson said Iran instead of Israel,” she noted before pointing out how Sean Hannity of Fox News had “himself said Jason Chaffetz when he meant Matt Gaetz.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott, Jean-Pierre continued, often confused “saving Medicare money with cutting Medicaid.”
When with the president, a reporter asked, has she observed Biden confusing the names of officials. “I’ve not seen him do that in meetings I’ve been in,” the press secretary replied.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics. He previously wrote for The Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.
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