One of the truest truisms in politics is that Presidential-election campaigns are marathons rather than sprints.
Since Joe Biden’s senior aides are well aware of this, it’s a bit of a puzzle why the President chose to come out in person on Thursday night and rebut some of the special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s mishandling of classified documents.
Yes, Hur’s report contained some damaging lines that Republicans had quickly seized upon, particularly the statement that, if a case were to go to 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.”
The age issue is hardly a new one, but the White House was furious that the report’s characterization of Biden overshadowed the fact that the special counsel had declined to charge him. Plus, Hur, who worked for the Justice Department under Donald Trump, including a three-year stint as the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, explicitly acknowledged that the Biden case was very different from the one Donald Trump is facing in a Florida federal court, despite attempts by Republicans to conflate the two.
Even as Republicans and Trump-supporting commentators were busy claiming that Hur said Biden was too old and too out of it to prosecute, it wasn’t necessarily the case that Biden himself needed to address this issue immediately.
In a statement that White House put out shortly after the special counsel’s report was released, he had already said he welcomed the fact “there would be no charges brought in this case and the matter is now closed.” In addition, his lawyers, in a letter attached to the report, had slammed Hur for using “highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events.”
Some of the examples that Hur cited related to a 2017 taped interview Biden did with a ghostwriter. Others, including a claim that he couldn’t remember which years he was Vice-President, referred to five hours of interviews with the special counsel’s team last October. In what is supposedly a legal document, these inclusions certainly looked gratuitous—to say the least.
For the Biden team, it would have been straightforward enough simply to point to other passages in Hur’s report which acknowledge that there isn’t sufficient evidence to bring a successful case, regardless of how well Biden remembered certain events.
“When he served as vice president and when the Afghanistan documents were found in Mr. Biden’s Delaware garage in 2022, his possession of them in his Delaware home was not a basis for prosecution because as vice president and president, he had authority to keep classified documents in his home,” the report notes.
It goes on to say that a criminal case would have had to rely on “Biden’s possession of the Afghanistan documents in his Virginia home in February 2017, when he was a private citizen and when he told his ghostwriter he had just found classified material.”
But even there, the report adds, a “viable defense is that Mr. Biden might not have retained the classified Afghanistan documents in his Virginia home at all. They could have been stored, by mistake and without his knowledge, at his Delaware home since the time he was vice president, as were other classified documents recovered during our investigation.”
The Biden team could have emphasized these points and moved on. Instead, it summoned reporters at short notice to the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, where the President spoke for about four minutes, then took questions from reporters. He was clearly seething at Hur’s report, particularly its suggestion—absurd on its face to anybody who has followed his career and life story—that he couldn’t remember when his son Beau died.
According to the Washington Post, he spoke without a teleprompter. If he had any notes, he didn’t appear to refer to them. His voice was animated, and he certainly didn’t have any trouble getting his message across. He said, “I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man and I know what the hell I’m doing. . . . My memory is fine. Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become President.” He vented about Hur’s report. He directed some of his ire at the assembled members of the White House press corps, especially when Peter Doocy, of Fox News, asked how bad Biden’s memory is and if he could continue as President. “My memory is so bad I let you speak,” the President fired back.
After about five minutes of back and forth, Biden started to walk away, but he returned to the podium to answer a question that had been shouted at him about Gaza.
At this point, he made some news by saying that he believed the Israeli military response to the October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas was “over the top”—a sharp escalation of his criticism of Israel. In going on with his answer and explaining how he had made extensive efforts to get humanitarian relief into Gaza, he mistakenly referred to the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as the President of Mexico.
In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor slip, but it came at a bad moment, delighting his opponents, and dismaying some Democrats who are concerned that his age could prove a fatal handicap in November.
Within minutes, Republican politicians and pundits were crowing on cable news and the Internet. Representative Elise Stefanik, of New York, told CNN that the White House press conference had been “disastrous” and that Trump was going to win in November. Meanwhile, Democrats pointed out that, as recently as Sunday, Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House, referred to Israel as its enemy Iran in a television interview, and that Trump recently described the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán as “President of Turkey.”
Last month, Trump repeatedly referred to Nancy Pelosi as Nikki Haley, saying that Haley had been in charge of Capitol Hill security on January 6, 2021, the day his supporters attacked the Capitol building.
With the two major candidates set to be an aggregate age of a hundred and fifty-nine on Election Day—Biden will be eighty-one, Trump will be seventy-eight—age was always going to be a factor in the campaign.
In the coming days, the White House will surely batten down the hatches and try to refocus attention on Biden’s record, which will be a challenge. On Friday morning, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all led their home pages with stories about the President’s age and memory.
Republicans, despite Trump’s age and frequent gaffes, are all in on the claim that Biden isn’t fit for office. Of course, they are eager to deflect attention from their own candidate’s weaknesses, including the fundamental fact that he stands accused of conspiring against the United States in his concerted effort to overturn the result of 2020 election.
Moreover, some recent developments have moved in Biden’s favor. The Republican leadership’s decision to torpedo a bipartisan deal on strengthening border security robs them of the opportunity to pin chaos at the border entirely on him; the House G.O.P.’s effort to tar him with the actions of his son Hunter haven’t succeeded; the economy is powering ahead; economic sentiment is improving; and the stock market is doing so well that Trump is trying to claim credit for it.