Biden critical of special counsel’s claims he forgot when his son died
President Joe Biden addressed the nation after a report on his handling of classified documents was released by special counsel Robert Hur.
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will not face criminal charges for his handling of classified documents. But he is not coming away from Robert Hur’s special counsel investigation unscathed.
Hur’s report Thursday portrayed Biden as an elderly man with “diminished capacities,” including memory loss, handing his critics fresh evidence to argue the 81-year-old president isn’t up to serving a second term.
Details in the Department of Justice special counsel report pose such enormous problems politically for Biden that he delivered a previously unannounced primetime address, rejecting concerns about his mental fitness and insisting his memory is fine.
“How in the hell dare he raise that?” a visibly angry Biden said, singling out claims that he could not remember “even within several years” when his son Beau Biden died of brain cancer.
“I don’t need anybody to remind me when he passed away,” Biden said as he clenched his teeth.
Biden’s age was already a concern for many Americans ahead of the 2024 election, but the special counsel’s report thrust perhaps his biggest liability to the center of the campaign. Hur’s report also said Biden, during his interview, could not remember when his term as vice president started and ended.
“His memory appeared hazy when describing the Afghanistan debate that was once so important to him,” the report said. “Among other things, he mistakenly said he ‘had a real difference’ of opinion with General Karl Eikenberry, when, in fact, Eikenberry was an ally whom Mr. Biden cited approvingly in his Thanksgiving memo to President Obama.”
White House counsel slams inclusion of memory observations
Republicans seized on the report immediately. “A man too incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information is certainly unfit for the Oval Office,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a joint statement with other House Republican leaders.
Other critics, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., called for the removal of Biden from office through the 25th Amendment of the Constitution.
Biden’s aides have sought to downplay the president’s routine gaffes – including at a press briefing just before the special counsel report was released. The president has made a habit of making self-deprecating jokes about his age at campaign events as a way of confronting the issue in a lighthearted manner and on his own terms.
However, the special counsel report laid bare, in an official document, the problematic nature of Biden’s forgetfulness in an election year. Biden’s memory was already under scrutiny following three occasions this week in which he mistakenly referred to deceased foreign leaders when describing successors.
“We have also considered that, at trial, 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’s report says.
Biden’s attorneys Richard Sauber and Bob Bauer pushed back strongly at Hur for including the allegations of memory loss, calling it neither “accurate or appropriate” in a letter to the special counsel.
“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events,” their letter reads.
Biden’s allies jumped on the assertions about memory loss as politically motivated and inappropriate observations. Hur served as the principal associate deputy attorney general at Justice at the beginning of former President Donald Trump’s term in office. Trump later appointed him U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.
Jim Messina, former President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, said on social media that Hur “isn’t a dummy” and encouraged Democrats not to “take the bait” by making hay of the report.
“Hur, a lifelong Republican and creature of D.C., didn’t have a case against Biden, but he knew exactly how his swipes could hurt Biden politically,” he said.
Special counsel report comes amid foreign leader mix-ups
Biden first addressed the report Thursday afternoon as he delivered remarks to House Democrats at a retreat in Leesburg, Virginia.
He emphasized that the report − which he noted came from a “Republican counsel” − cleared him of any wrongdoing and contrasted the difference between his case and that of Trump, who did not cooperate with the Justice Department and was charged with crimes.
Shortly before the report’s release, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had made light of Biden’s memory lapses during a briefing. She argued that everyone gets confused on occasion, batting back suggestions that the aging president is mentally deteriorating.
She came prepared with examples of Republicans who had forgotten or mixed up names to make her point.
“Many people – elected officials – many people, you know, they can misspeak sometimes,” Jean-Pierre said.
She was responding to questions about Biden confusing foreign leaders in a story he regularly tells at fundraisers.
The first time, Biden was at a Las Vegas campaign event. He mixed up current French President Emmanuel Macron with deceased former French leader François Mitterrand. Biden also said that Mitterand was from Germany before correcting himself.
“And I sat down and I said, ‘America is back.’ And Mitterrand, from Germany − I mean, from France looked at me and said − said, ‘You know, what − why −how long you back for?’ Biden said.
At campaign fundraisers on Wednesday, he twice mixed up deceased German chancellor Helmut Kohl with Angela Merkel, a former German chancellor who retired in 2021, as he told the story again.
Making matters worse, as a furious Biden swatted down questions from reporters during a last-minute news conference on Thursday evening, he accidentally called Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi the president of Mexico. Biden was responding to a question about the war between Israel and Hamas and active hostage negotiations the U.S. is involved in.
“As you know, initially, the president of Mexico, el-Sissi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in. I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate,” Biden said.
Biden loyalists responded to the special counsel report by pointing to Trump’s habitual misspeaks. Last month he confused rival Republican candidate Nikki Haley with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
He inaccurately claimed that Haley, 52, was in charge of the U.S. Capitol’s security during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. He meant the jab for Pelosi.
Haley has been beating the drum on the campaign trail that Biden and Trump, 77, are too old to get the job done and America needs a younger leader. She has pushed for mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75. Haley has pointed to Trump’s gaffe involving Pelosi and the Biden special counsel report to underscore her position.
“Joe Biden can’t remember major events in his life, like when he was vice president or when his son died,” Haley said on Thursday. “That is sad, but it will be even sadder if we have a person in the White House who is not mentally up to the most important job in the world.”
Francesca Chambers and Joey Garrison cover the White House for USA TODAY.