WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden sidestepped any criminal charges as the investigation into his handling of classified documents concluded, but the political blowback from the special counsel’s report Thursday could prove even more devastating, reinforcing impressions that he is too old and impaired to hold the highest office.
Special counsel Robert Hur’s portrait of a man who couldn’t remember when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, or the year when his beloved son Beau died, dealt a blow to Biden’s argument that he is still sharp and fit enough to serve another four-year term.
In deciding not to charge Biden with any crimes, the special counsel wrote that in a potential trial, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview with him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
It was tough enough for Biden to reassure voters about his health before Hur’s report hit like a thunderclap Thursday afternoon, prompting members of his own party to question whether he could remain the nominee in November.
“It’s a nightmare,” said a Democratic House member who asked to speak anonymously to provide a frank assessment, adding that “it weakens President Biden electorally, and Donald Trump would be a disaster and an authoritarian.”
“For Democrats, we’re in a grim situation.”
Biden wasted little time before attempting to minimize the fallout. He held an unexpected exchange with reporters in the White House on Thursday night, in which he disputed Hur's assessment of his mental acuity.
Biden grew emotional when invoking the part of the report addressing the date of his son's death.
"How in the hell dare you raise that?" Biden said. "Frankly, when I was asked the question I thought to myself, 'It wasn't any of their damn business.' "
Polling has long shown that age looms as Biden’s greatest liability in his expected rematch with Trump. A January poll by NBC News found that 76% of voters have major or moderate concerns about Biden’s mental and physical health.
“It’s been a problem since way before this ever happened,” said a longtime Democratic operative who noted that when focus groups are asked to apply one word to Biden, it is often “old.”
Just this week, Biden twice referred to conversations he’s had as president with foreign leaders who’ve long since died. In his remarks Thursday night defending his competency, while talking about the war in Gaza, he referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi as being the head of Mexico. White House press aides have downplayed such lapses as the sort of mistake anyone in public life can make.
The Hur report strips away the defenses that Biden’s press operation has used to protect him and raises fresh doubts about whether Biden is up to the rigors of the presidency, Democratic strategists said in interviews.
“This is beyond devastating,” said another Democratic operative, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Biden’s shortcomings. “It confirms every doubt and concern that voters have. If the only reason they didn’t charge him is because he’s too old to be charged, then how can he be president of the United States?”
Asked if Hur’s report changes the calculus for Democrats who expect Biden to be the party’s nominee, this person said: “How the f--- does it not?”
Another Biden ally called it “the worst day of his presidency.”
“I think he needs to show us this is a demonstrably false characterization of him and that he has what it takes to win and govern.”
Biden has overwhelmingly won the first primary contests — notching victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. It would be virtually impossible for anyone else to challenge him at this point; the deadline has passed in more than 30 states to get on primary ballots.
Some of the president’s allies were quick to defend him. They pointed to the timing of the interview with the special counsel — days after Hamas’ attack on Israel, which had captured much of the president’s focus. Others said that in their own dealings with Biden, he shows no sign of infirmity.
“He did so well in this discussion with members,” Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., told NBC News after seeing the president on Thursday. “He’s very sharp, no memory issues, and his only stumbling is when he trips over words consistent with his lifelong speech impediment.”
Though Biden was fortunate to escape indictment, the special counsel report may give Trump additional fodder as he fights charges for allegedly mishandling classified records at his Mar-a-Lago social club. Republicans are already accusing Biden of benefiting from a double standard. Trump will likely brandish the Hur report as proof that Biden has “weaponized” the Justice Department for political advantage.
What’s more, Democrats will now be hard-pressed to capitalize on Trump’s indictment over retaining classified records. Before Hur’s report came out, Democrats argued that the two cases were very different. Whereas Trump failed to turn over classified records even after he was asked to do so, Biden willingly cooperated with authorities and relinquished all the material he had, Biden allies had argued.
“The public understands the essential difference between presidents or vice presidents like Joe Biden who occasionally behaved in sloppy ways with respect to where they were taking documents, and a president like Trump, who deliberately makes off with hundreds of classified government documents and then hides them and refuses to return them,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said on Wednesday, before the report was released. (Trump has denied any wrongdoing.)
Now, the distinctions may be harder for Biden allies to draw, given that Hur wrote that there was evidence Biden “willfully retained and disclosed classified material after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen.”
The report mentions an instance in February 2017, when he was no longer vice president, when Biden read notes containing classified information “nearly verbatim” to a ghostwriter helping him with his book, “Promise Me, Dad.”
Storage of sensitive government secrets was haphazard. The report describes certain classified records involving the war in Afghanistan in Biden’s Delaware garage inside a “badly damaged box surrounded by household detritus.”
Before the report was released, Biden aides had been bracing for a finding that he had simply been careless in his treatment of classified records, a person familiar with the White House’s thinking said.
The political fallout from the report, though, is likely to be “worse,” this person said. What will stick in people’s minds is what Hur said about Biden’s memory, the person added.
Biden’s lawyers disputed the report’s description of Biden’s forgetfulness.
“We do not believe that the report’s treatment of President Biden’s memory is accurate or appropriate,” two of his lawyers wrote in a letter to Hur. “The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events.”
In the hours after the report was released, people close to the Biden campaign rolled out a different rebuttal. Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that Hur is a Republican who “knew exactly how his swipes could hurt Biden politically.”
That’s a familiar argument. Trump has also claimed that law enforcement is trying to sway the election, meaning both sides are now claiming victimization at the hands of partisan prosecutors.
“Hur knew exactly what he was doing here,” Stephanie Cutter, a veteran Democratic operative, wrote on X. “To provide political cover for himself for not prosecuting, he gratuitously leveled a personal (not legal) charge against the president that he absolutely knows is a gift to Trump. And, guess what we are all talking about?”