Political furor is now swirling over Special Counsel Robert Hur’s 388-page report which resulted in no charges against President Joe Biden for keeping classified documents but contained Hur’s characterization of Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory” who couldn’t remember the year of his late son’s death. Biden has angrily denied that.
Republicans are basically saying “I told you so” while most Democrats and a former FBI official say what’s happening is deja vu. Is this Biden’s “James Comey” moment when a federal official Republican sinks or damages Biden’s campaign with a comment?
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe argued Friday that the special counsel’s report on President Biden’s retention of classified documents while vice president has “nauseating similarities” with findings from the agency’s 2016 investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails.
While special counsel Robert Hur’s 388-page report, released Thursday, found Biden “willfully” kept the documents after leaving the White House, no charges were brought against the president. Hur, in his release, remarked that Biden is “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” which has drawn scrutiny from Democrats and the White House.
In an interview with CNN, McCabe said Hur — who was appointed by former President Trump — was trying to please Biden’s critics.
McCabe said that Hur, a Trump-appointed prosecutor, was likely trying to please both Biden’s allies, by not pressing charges, and critics, by finding he mishandled the documents.
“It really felt like it was another instance of a very high-profile investigator who was coming out with a conclusion that he likely knew would not be accepted or embraced by many people and kind of attempting to even out the scales,” the former FBI official said.
“In other words, to play to the sort of … the segment of the audience that was going to be frustrated by the fact that he concluded not to pursue charges,” he added. “That’s what it felt like to me.”
The same thing happened in July 2016, McCabe suggested, when then-FBI Director James Comey found evidence that Clinton was “extremely careless” with classified emails on a private server, but said was not enough to merit an indictment — ultimately opening the door for her to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
“I think where we step far over the line and made a mistake was in Jim’s rhetoric clearly criticizing Hillary Clinton but of course not recommending that she be charged,” McCabe said Friday. “The use of those terms was very likely a violation of [Department of Justice] policy, which says you don’t say bad things about someone you say you’re not going to charge.”
The Biden age/memory story is all over the legacy media, internet media and social media. The New York Times has run several opinion columnists saying Biden should step aside. Here’s one example. Meanwhile, although Donald Trump is only three years younger than Biden and also mixes things up and forgets, the age issue is clearly hurting Biden more than Trump. Some pundits are putting forth theories about why that’s happening. Now the issue is: how Biden should handle it?
Jonathan Alter, who has long argued that Biden shouldn’t seek re-election, writes that his “New Year’s Resolution is to stop agitating for Biden’s withdrawal and start figuring out how to help him get reelected and save the republic.” He writes:
I first met Joe Biden during the 1988 presidential campaign, and I’ve interviewed him many times since. In 2016, I spent weeks with him on and off when writing profiles for the Times and Politico. He has been repeating corny stories, mixing up words (partly a product of a stutter he overcame), and tangling his syntax for all the years I’ve known him. It’s part of what made him one of the worst presidential candidates I’ve ever covered, even as he is proving to be one of the best presidents of recent years. The memory and language lapses are worse now, but only marginally so. This is what every Biden aide I’ve discussed this with confirms. The man is old but not senile. Full-stop.
The way to deal with the now-widespread impression that he might be is to abandon the current strategy of minimizing public interactions and get people comfortable seeing him out there, even when they know he will sometimes mess up. The White House made a good start on this when he went before the press immediately after the Hur Report was issued. Even though he misspoke in describing Egyptian President Sisi as the leader of Mexico and used the word “press” when he meant “public,” the appearance was a net plus because he seemed feisty and in charge.
White House aides mistakenly turned down the usual pre-Super Bowl interview. They must trust their candidate — or urge him to withdraw. If they opt for trust, they should now schedule a round of live interviews, including one with Fox News’s Bret Baier. In its inimitably lazy-minded way, the press will seize on any lapse because it fits the “pattern,” but viewers will be able to see what aides and foreign leaders know — he’s basically OK — and each interview will diminish the impression of senility rather than compounding it.
Alter offers several strategies then adds:
[Attorney General Merrick]Garland’s refusal to intervene on Biden’s behalf was ethically correct and politically advantageous. Remember, Trump’s entire campaign is rooted in grievance against Biden’s DOJ for launching a “witch hunt” against him. When the Trump Coup Trial finally opens in late spring or summer — and last week’s decision by the D.C. Circuit to slam dunk Trump’s immunity claim increases the odds of that — we can anticipate a familiar ritual like the one that unfolded recently in two New York cases. Trump will lose all day in court and then go out on the steps of the Prettyman Courthouse and claim the Justice Department is persecuting him.
Biden’s response to that should be: “That’s ridiculous. The Justice Department is prosecuting my son for crying out loud. And it filed a report about me that I really didn’t like.” The rightwing press will respond that a judge essentially forced the DOJ to prosecute Hunter Biden, but the Hur report gives Biden more ammo to push back and convince independent voters that Jack Smith is following the law, not pursuing a witch hunt.
The news conference Biden held just after the release of Hur’s report is actually a case in point. Biden was clear, assertive, even angry. That was all good. He addressed specific policy issues in a way that demonstrates his active engagement with them. He didn’t confuse anyone with anyone else. He swapped “Mexico” in for “Egypt”. But what he was describing was clearly the US’s on-going negotiations with Egypt over the situation in Gaza. The point is that very few viewers would have even noticed that goof. But it’s close to the only things reporters focused on afterwards. Saying how this is unfair is great for commiserating with fellow Biden supporters. It may have a marginal impact bludgeoning reporters for their hackish work product. But the only way to get around that is to make those public appearances frequent and pervasive enough people actually see them. Yes, he’s a goofy and clumsy public speaker. Keeping him underwraps to prevent Fox News gotchas is totally self-defeating. Jon even, ingeniously, suggests cutting a viral blooper reel of Biden bloopers going back to his 30s and 40s and 50s. It wouldn’t be hard and makes the point. Certainly no one would have to worry about it going viral.
NBC News went to neurologists for comment about the memory/aging issue:
The report on Biden’s handling of classified documents noted that the president hadn’t remembered the exact time frame that he served as vice president and was struggling to recall the period when his late son, Beau Biden, had passed away. Biden defiantly rejected the changes in a press conference late Thursday, saying “my memory’s fine.”
There’s also been scrutiny of other recent events when the 81-year-old president mixed up names of foreign leaders.
However, neurologists say blanking on the names of acquaintances or having difficulty remembering dates from the past, especially when under stress, can simply be part of normal aging.
“If you asked me when my mother passed away, I couldn’t necessarily tell you the exact year because it was many years ago,” Dr. Paul Newhouse, clinical core leader for the Vanderbilt Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said.
Almost every older patient has trouble remembering people’s names, Newhouse said.
“I think it’s by far the most universal complaint of every person as they age,” Newhouse said.
In Newhouse’s experience, this type of forgetfulness doesn’t actually predict who ends up having memory disorders. Only a person’s doctor or neurologist can make that diagnosis, not outside observers, brain experts say.
Dr. Dennis Selkoe, co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, agreed that forgetting names doesn’t actually provide much insight into potential memory problems. In fact, stress and a lack of sleep, can interfere with memory, no matter how old someone is.
“Naming proper nouns is not an adequate basis to make a conclusion about whether an individual has a more consistent and more concerning substantive progressive memory disorder,” Selkoe said.
Meanwhile, on X, formerly known as Twitter:
“When people say Biden is ‘old’ what they mean is ‘frail.’ Trump is functionally the same age as Biden, with much worse BMI & cognitive functioning. But because Trump can yell at the moon like a mad dog, people see him as ‘vigorous’ & age isn’t a problem.” https://t.co/GEn4C3mPVM
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) February 10, 2024
Republican Senator Mitt Romney rejects the notion that President Biden isn’t fit for office:
“I've worked with the president and I haven't seen anything that's abnormal before. It was like President Trump saying Niki Haley three times instead of Nancy Pelosi; sometimes you say… pic.twitter.com/16CbPYrhc1
— Republicans against Trump (@RpsAgainstTrump) February 10, 2024
File under Take a Breath:
– Biden has an independent DOJ, and is not using it as Trump did with AG Barr.
-that DOJ appointed Special Counsels to investigate both Biden and his son.
-Biden rightly was vindicated by an independent Special Counsel of criminal wrongdoing
— Andrew Weissmann (weissmann11 on Threads)? (@AWeissmann_) February 10, 2024
-Biden rightly can be upset by gratuitous politically charged statements by the Special Counsel and misleading presentation of the findings
-The independent AG did not censure anything from teh report, or write a misleading "summary" to spin the press (as Trump's DOJ did)
— Andrew Weissmann (weissmann11 on Threads)? (@AWeissmann_) February 10, 2024
— Adam Zyglis (@adamzyglis) February 9, 2024
BREAKING: The Biden campaign just released this devastating clip showing Donald Trump slurring his words tonight. Retweet to make sure the whole country sees. pic.twitter.com/wAGR7a4Kp7
— Biden’s Wins (@BidensWins) February 10, 2024
Toobin: It was outrageous that Herr put in some of that stuff in this report. That had no place in it. There's no reason why this report had to be 300 pages. There is no reason why this fairly straightforward case had to be treated this way. The job is to put up or shut up pic.twitter.com/QkzMDmsmJL
— Biden-Harris HQ (@BidenHQ) February 9, 2024
Boom. Rep. Jamie Raskin just nailed it on CNN, saying the Special Counsel "didn't need to take the cheap shots, and you could take the same type of shots at Trump, who recently confused a woman that he sexually attacked & lied about with one of his wives." Exactly.
— Victor Shi (@Victorshi2020) February 8, 2024
There's a lot of "not a good day for Biden". It's not a good day for a president who is cleared of any "in-dick-ta-ble" offense? Or it's not a good day because the Special Counsel offered his gratuitous personal opinion of the president but
didn't have any proof of a crime? pic.twitter.com/X7etZhEkb8
— Michael Steele (@MichaelSteele) February 9, 2024
? White House officials are taking issue with a reference in the report that says Biden “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”
President Biden "remembers the day Beau died every day of his life and to suggest otherwise is insulting,” the White… pic.twitter.com/ewVWyB2bU7
— Chris D. Jackson (@ChrisDJackson) February 8, 2024
“Age has not limited Joe Biden… make this race about competency and ideology”-David Jolly
And this mic drop ?? https://t.co/Q9cqz38k5D
— Michael Steele (@MichaelSteele) February 10, 2024
And here’s what their editorial page looks like. I know their different sides of the newsroom, but that doesn’t excuse FOUR stories being about how bad Biden’s age is for him without ANY mention of Trump’s. Our media is failing us so badly it’s not funny. Do better @nytimes /END pic.twitter.com/MZL1lrXXdp
— Victor Shi (@Victorshi2020) February 10, 2024
"Fundamentally, it’s strange that Biden’s age should even rate as a concern when his opponent is a deranged criminal authoritarian who is also pretty old and scattered.
"But the world is a strange and frequently unfair place." https://t.co/wRHgRUlwch
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) February 9, 2024
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.