A special counsel report with a surprise focus on President Biden’s age and memory has deepened Democratic worries about November while infuriating the White House.
Age has long been seen as the 81-year-old Biden’s biggest political liability, and the report from special counsel Robert Hur brought it to the forefront even as it resulted in no charges against Biden for his handling of classified documents,
The White House and many Democrats saw passages in Hur’s report describing Biden as an elderly man with memory problems as a cheap political hit job.
But Democrats also acknowledged the potential for the report to cement damaging perceptions of Biden that could cost him reelection in a likely battle in the fall against former President Trump, who is 77.
“Look, I’m a Biden supporter. And I slept like a baby last night. I woke up every two hours and wet the bed. This is terrible for Democrats. And anybody with a functioning brain knows that,” said Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House adviser, on CNN.
“What you do is attack. Change the subject. You can’t unring the bell,” Begala added.
Biden himself added to the perceptions that he may have lost a step throughout the past week.
On Sunday, he confused French President Emmanuel Macron with François Mitterrand, who served as president of France from 1981-95 and died in 1996. Macron has been in office since 2017.
On Wednesday, Biden confused former German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Helmut Kohl, who served as chancellor from 1982-88 and died in 2017.
On Thursday, Biden used a press conference to lash out at Hur’s report and dismiss concerns about his memory and age. But in response to a question about the humanitarian crisis in Hamas, he mistakenly referred to Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the “president of Mexico.”
Biden and his team have said it’s valid for voters to consider his age, but to judge him on his record of achievements and ability to handle the rigors of the job. In the wake of Hur’s report, the White House and Biden’s allies got much more aggressive.
Vice President Harris passionately defended Biden on Friday and ripped Hur’s report as “politically motivated” and “inappropriate.”
“The way the president’s demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts, and clearly politically motivated,” said Harris, who served as California’s attorney general.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said on a call organized by the Biden campaign to address gun violence that Hur’s report was a “smear” full of “cheap shots.”
“Clearly, there was an agenda there. And what’s true is that the president now is going to be our guy,” said Fetterman, who faced questions about his fitness for office during his 2022 Senate campaign after suffering a stroke.
White House spokesperson for oversight Ian Sams blasted the “gratuitous” passages in the report and said that comments made about the president’s age went “beyond the remit of a prosecutor.”
“When the inevitable conclusion is that the facts and the evidence don’t support any charges, you’re left to wonder why this report spends time making gratuitous and inappropriate criticisms of the president,” Sams said during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room on Friday.
Hur — a Republican prosecutor appointed to the role of special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland — offered raw assessments of Biden’s recall abilities. He wrote that Biden presented to investigators as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” He described Biden as having a memory with “significant limitations,” and that “appeared hazy,” and he wrote of a president with “diminished faculties and faulty memory.”
In one particularly harsh passage, the report said Biden struggled to remember the years he served as vice president and the year that his son died, with the latter clearly offending Biden.
“How in the hell dare he raise that,” Biden said in remarks from the White House responding to the report. “Frankly, when I was asked the question I thought to myself it wasn’t any of their damn business.”
Biden’s age has long been a touchy subject for the president and his allies, many of whom believe Trump gets a pass for his verbal slips despite being just a few years younger than Biden.
An NBC News poll published this week found 76 percent of voters, including 54 percent of Democrats, said they had major or moderate concerns when asked whether Biden, 81, has “the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term.”
By comparison, the poll found 48 percent of voters had major or moderate concerns about Trump having the mental and physical health to serve a second term.
Republicans were quick to make political hay of Hur’s report, arguing a president whose memory would be a major factor in a hypothetical trial should not be given four more years in the White House.
Nikki Haley, a GOP presidential candidate who has pushed the idea of competency tests for older politicians, suggested without evidence on Friday that some Democrats were already working to replace Biden on the ticket in November.
Some former Biden White House officials saw the Hur report as an opportunity to go on offense and more proactively address concerns about the president’s age and ability to stand up to the rigors of the job.
“The editorializing from the special prosecutor was grossly personal and overtly political, so the president had every right to be angry. His emotion was raw and sincere and voters appreciate displays of humanity like that,” said Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to first lady Jill Biden and special assistant to President Biden.
LaRosa said that while “of course, it was politically harmful,” Biden can overcome the damage by engaging with the media and doing more interviews. Trump makes himself accessible and “thrives on communication with reporters,” LaRosa noted.
“Questions about the age, they are not made up,” Symone Sanders Townsend, who served as Biden’s press secretary on his 2020 campaign, said on MSNBC. “And because that is something that voters themselves are bringing up, it is something the president has to speak to. And if people just watch Joe Biden, it does speak for itself.”
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