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Updated Feb 8, 2024, 6:05pm EST
politicsNorth America

Special Counsel report casts doubt on Biden’s memory

President Joe Biden departs the White House for Leesburg, Va., on Feb. 8, 2024.
Anadolu via Getty Images/Celal Gunes
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The News

Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report on President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents has fueled scrutiny about Biden’s acumen based on Hur’s commentary on the president’s age and apparent memory loss.

Hur declined to charge Biden for disclosing classified materials, saying that a jury may perceive the president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” He also laid out several instances during the investigation where Biden apparently forgot important dates, including the start and end of his vice presidency and the year of his son Beau’s death.

The report by Hur, who was nominated as U.S. attorney in Maryland by Donald Trump and then tapped by Attorney General Merrick Garland to be special counsel, was cheered by Republicans who have made Biden’s age the center of the 2024 presidential campaign.

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“All I can say is that the statement by the special counsel about his condition was unnerving,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, told reporters. “And people all over the world are going to read that. I have not gone there, I know [Biden] I consider him a friend. But this is a report from the Special Counsel laying out pretty clearly a compromised person.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, added that it was “a pretty sad commentary on the capabilities of the president of the United States.”

“I’m not one who gets personal,” Tillis told reporters. “But when it’s so profound that you have a prosecutor take note of it, I think it’s something to pay attention to.”

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Hur described Biden’s memory as appearing to have “significant limitations” both in 2017, based on recorded conversations with ghostwriter Mark Zwonitzer, and during his 2023 interview with the special counsel’s office. Hur said that convincing jurors to convict Biden would be challenging partly because the president “would likely present himself to a jury…as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

“Mr. Biden’s recorded conversations with Zwonitzer from 2017 are often painfully slow, with Mr. Biden struggling to remember events and straining at times to read and relay his own notebook entries,” Hur wrote in the report. “In his interview with our office, Mr. Biden’s memory was worse. He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013 - when did I stop being Vice President?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still Vice President?’).”

Hur also wrote that Biden “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died,” and highlighted the president’s “hazy” memory during a discussion about the Afghanistan debate.

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Shelby’s view

The dust hasn’t fully settled on Hur’s decision not to charge Biden, but his comments about the president’s memory are fodder for his opponents’ frequent attacks on Biden’s age and mental ability. It’s even more notable that the commentary questioning Biden’s acuity comes in the form of a Justice Department report.

While Hur’s decision not to charge Biden — and to make clear how different his handling of documents was from Donald Trump — will be a relief for the president, his observations about Biden’s apparent memory problems are a gift to Trump in an election where the leading candidates’ age and competency are at the forefront of conversations.

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Room for Disagreement

Biden’s allies and Democratic lawmakers have dismissed Hur’s remarks about his memory, though Biden himself notably avoided defending the criticisms in his statement. Biden officials pointed to a letter sent to Hur before the report’s release where the president’s lawyers criticized the report’s treatment of his memory as being inaccurate and “highly prejudicial.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, meanwhile, said his conversations with Biden are “very lucid.”

“There’s certainly no crime in being a well-meaning elderly man,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters. “His mandate was to judge whether a crime was committed...not speculate on what the jury would do, not to speculate on how full or sharp Joe Biden’s mind is.”

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The View From Dean Phillips

Rep. Dean Phillips, who is challenging Biden in a longshot bid for the Democratic nomination, said in a statement to Semafor that this report “simply affirms what most Americans already know, that the President cannot continue to serve as our Commander in Chief beyond his term ending January 20, 2025.” He said Thursday was “another sad day for America and particularly for President Biden and his family.”

Phillips added that the report “all but handed the 2024 election to Donald Trump if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee.”

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Notable

  • Team Biden has been trying for months to level the playing field when it comes to questions about Biden’s age and mental fitness, Semafor reported in October. In recent weeks, that argument has finally become more mainstream, with Nikki Haley beginning to highlight Trump’s verbal gaffes on the campaign trail.

David Weigel contributed to this report.

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