WASHINGTON — The Biden campaign and the White House have landed on an initial strategy for responding to special counsel Robert Hur's report that has spurred questions about the president's fitness to hold office: Attack Hur and the media covering the report.
The morning after Biden flashed anger at Hur for what he and other senior advisers argue was an inappropriate and excessive focus on his age, Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel, sparred with the press corps for cherry-picking findings in the report, which he suggested was written in a way to shield Hur from political pressure from Republicans.
“I know it’s hard to wade through 400 full pages,” he said. “The report lays out example after example of how the president did not willfully take classified documents.”
Behind the scenes, Biden advisers in both the White House and his campaign were more scathing. One Biden ally said the report angered some of his supporters and, as a result, it was rallying them to his defense.
“People who are supporters of Biden are looking at that thinking that’s a cheap shot and he was playing politics,” the ally said.
The White House's simmering animosity toward the media also burst into the public. One Biden aide said the media was “shameful” in its handling of the highly sensitive political moment.
“Hur couldn’t make his case and he takes partisan, personal and untrue swipes at Joe Biden,” one aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about internal views of the president’s team, said. “[He] did it so the media would take the bait, and none of you have learned a damn thing since 2016.”
The aide was referring to another fraught episode when then-FBI Director James Comey determined that while Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had been “extremely careless” in handling classified information, she would not face charges for using a private email server.
That assessment, and Comey's decision to briefly revisit the investigation weeks before the 2016 election after a new disclosure of additional emails on a device belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., proved a persistent distraction for Clinton’s campaign and ultimately, Democrats felt, a major contributing factor in her defeat to Donald Trump that November.
“The media loves to be entertained. They love drama. They don’t get it with Biden because he’s doing his job and delivering for families. So they treat partisanship as a reason to manufacture scandal,” the aide said. “I think ultimately this election will be about someone who cares deeply about the truth, his job, making people’s lives better, following the law and being a decent person. And someone who is the opposite of all of those things. Despite you and your colleagues best efforts to focus on none of those things.”
In the near term, the Biden campaign plans to rely on Democratic surrogates to take on Hur’s report — amplifying its ultimate determination that Biden would not be charged and the distinctions from Trump’s handling of classified documents, while attacking Hur for what they consider extraneous discussion of Biden’s age.
“The way that the president’s demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts,” Vice President Kamala Harris said, calling the report “clearly politically motivated, gratuitous.”
Biden’s team and the president himself have not been shy in the past about calling out press coverage they feel prioritizes noise over substance. And now, as in the past, multiple aides have felt that they can weather difficult news cycles because of the media’s and the general public’s short attention span, and keep their focus on core issues like the economy, abortion rights and the stakes for democracy.
But Democratic allies raised concern that Republicans will grow emboldened now to use the Hur report as a political cudgel and try to keep its damaging statements in public discussion during oversight hearings, and potentially even use it to revive their impeachment inquiry into Biden.
“They almost certainly will want him to come in for a hearing,” a Democratic congressional aide said of Hur.
Aides have also never had a tidy answer to voters’ concerns about the president's age. Biden, the first lady and others have often said that with age comes experience and wisdom. The campaign recently has sought to put Biden in more informal, unscripted environments that they felt could better harness what has long been considered a political asset: his folksy, familiar and at times candid style.
They’ve also recently tried turning the age and mental acuity challenge against Trump, with Biden himself mocking the Republican front-runner for confusing rival Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A senior Biden campaign official, though, said that was likely not something Biden himself would continue to dwell on, even as the campaign’s rapid response team is likely to circulate Trump gaffes on social media.
Nothing has yet moved the needle for voters, though, and other allies have suggested the campaign needs to take voters’ concerns more seriously. While the report's release Thursday was not a “nail in the coffin,” it did reveal that campaign leaders have underestimated the challenge, one longtime ally said.
“They have to relax and put him out there,” the ally said. “The more people see him, the better they will feel.”