Democrats and their allies were shaping a damage control response on Friday to a hastily organized White House press call the night before that appeared to fall short in its mission to reassure voters about Joe Biden’s mental acuity after it was harshly questioned in a prosecutor’s report about his having kept classified documents at the end of his vice-presidency.
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Biden already said that his interview with special counsel Robert Hur last October – in which he was reported to have forgotten the year his son Beau died and precisely when he had been vice-president – came in the days straight after Hamas attacked southern Israel, when Biden was preoccupied with the US response.
Hur’s report concluded on Thursday that Biden would not face criminal charges in the case, despite “willfully” retaining and disclosing classified material, which he would not be open to as a sitting president anyway but also would not be warranted even if he was no longer president.
But Hur then went on to describe at length how he found the US president’s memory to be failing, prompting anger from Biden and, in the following hours and into Friday, Democrats and aides to come to his defense.
“The way that the president’s demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly politically motivated,” Kamala Harris told MSNBC on Friday.
The vice-president slammed claims of Biden’s failing mental acuity made in the 388-pages report as “gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate”.
Earlier, Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin from the crucial swing state of Wisconsin addressed the conclusions by special counsel Robert Hur that the 81-year-old president’s recall was “significantly limited”, and that Hur would not bring charges over classified documents in part because jurors would see the US president not as a willful criminal but as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”.
“I judge a president on what they’ve done and whose side they’re on,” Baldwin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She pointed to Biden’s “strong record of creating good-paying jobs, rebuilding our infrastructure, and lowering prescription drug prices”.
Tommy Vietor, a former Obama administration staffer, wrote on X that the prosecutor’s comments were “just a rightwing hit job from within Biden’s own DOJ. Wild.”
On MSNBC, which often previews the Democratic party line, the host Joe Scarborough addressed the conclusions by the special counsel that the president’s recall was “significantly limited” and he would not bring charges over classified documents in part because jurors would see Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, not a criminal.
“So bizarre,” Scarborough said. “Why in the world would [Hur] put his neurological assessment of Joe Biden in his report, and why would [US attorney general] Merrick Garland release garbage like that in a justice department report?”
Dan Goldman, the Democratic congressman from New York, told the station that he did not have “any concerns” about Biden’s age or ability. “Remember, the job of the president is to guide our country. It is not to be a cheerleader for the United States. It is to govern our country,” he said.
Referring to missing Hillary Clinton emails that became an issue on the eve of the 2016 election, Scarborough added: “It sure sounds like James Comey in 2016 when he couldn’t indict Hillary Clinton legally so he indicted her politically.”
Vietor echoed that line, claiming Hur had “clearly decided to go down the Jim Comey path of filling his report absolving Biden of criminal activity with ad hominem attacks”.
The long-shot Democratic primary challenger Dean Phillips, who is campaigning against Biden, said Hur’s report had “all but handed the 2024 election to Donald Trump”.
“The 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,” Phillips said in a statement.
Behind closed doors, some Democrats expressed mounting concerns about a re-election narrative that focuses on Biden’s age. “It’s a nightmare,” a Democratic House member reportedly told NBC News. “It weakens President Biden electorally, and Donald Trump would be a disaster and an authoritarian.”
“For Democrats, we’re in a grim situation,” the anonymous source reportedly added.
Biden hit back at Hur’s characterization of his mental condition during a surprise press conference at the White House on Thursday evening. The president maintained that his memory was “just fine” and in a tense exchange said “I know what the hell I’m doing” and that remarks about his memory had “no place in this report”.
“My memory is fine,” Biden said. “Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president.”
“For any extraneous commentary, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he added. “It has no place in this report.”
At the end of the interview, he referred to Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as the “president of Mexico” in a response to a reporter’s query about the current situation in the Middle East. The error came after two other public gaffes this week in which Biden claimed to have spoken recently with two long-dead European leaders, Germany’s Helmut Kohl and France’s François Mitterrand.
Polling has consistently shown that concerns about Biden’s age are seen as his greatest political liability in a rematch with Donald Trump.
A poll by NBC News last month found that 76% of voters had major or moderate concerns when asked whether Biden has “the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term”. Asked the same question about the 77-year-old Trump, 48% said they had major or moderate concerns.