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Classified Document Hearing Shows Stiff Partisan Divides on Biden's Responsibility, Memory

Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Hur listens during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, March 12, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Hur listens during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, March 12, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Members of Congress on Tuesday turned a hearing about President Joe Biden's handling of classified documents into a charged referendum on a question central to the upcoming presidential election: the 81-year-old's mental fitness.

The Biden administration and their main challengers, the backers of presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump, emerged from the House Judiciary Committee's five-hour grilling of Special Counsel Robert Hur with radically different answers to that question.

They also starkly disagreed over Hur's decision not to file criminal charges, despite concluding in his February report that Biden "willfully retained and disclosed classified materials as a private citizen."

Criminal charges were not warranted, Hur argued in announcing his decision in early February, because, he said, Biden would likely present himself to a jury as a "well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory" — words that Republican legislators repeated, repeatedly, during the hearing.

Afterward, Ian Sams, spokesperson for the White House counsel's office, gave his take:

"The main thing I took away from the hearing today was that we had three hours of the Republicans showing just how hypocritical they're willing to be in order to politically attack the president at the same time that they and the Democrats and the special counsel himself laid bare exactly why there is no case here," he said.

"The case is closed, the evidence did not support bringing charges, and it's over," Sams said. "It's time to move on."

Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesperson for Trump's Make America Great Again movement, offered his own conclusion.

"Joe Biden put America's national security at risk with his illegal retention and disclosure of classified material," he said. "Biden lied about his wrongdoing in a national press conference, which begs the question — what else is Joe Biden lying about?"

Further muddying the picture on the matter is Hur's own grammatically complex statement:

"The word exoneration does not appear anywhere in my report and that is not my conclusion," Hur said.

A newly released transcript of Hur's five-hour interview held last year with Biden, includes instances of Biden saying he couldn't recall details or citing dates incorrectly, appearing to say in one instance that his eldest son died in 2017 and that Trump, who was elected in 2016, was "elected in November of 2017."

"The transcript is now available for every American to see, for all media to see," Sams said. He noted it shows that, despite the confusion over the year of Beau Biden's death, it shows that Biden correctly cited the date: May 30.

"I think that you saw the anger and emotional reaction of a father who still experiences the pain of that loss every single day," Sams said.

Many Republicans used their five-minute question periods to compare Biden's situation to that of his challenger. Trump, too, faces criminal charges over his handling of classified documents after he left office. He was initially slapped with 37 felony counts, including charges that he obstructed justice by failing to return the documents even in response to a subpoena. It's not clear when that case will go to trial.

Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, in one sentence, took aim at the justice system and Biden's mental acuity: "This guy's not getting treated the same way as Trump, because the elevator is not going to the top floor, so we can't prove intent."

Democrats resisted that characterization.

"Joe Biden is a competent, good president who knows American values," Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen said.

Hur, in his opening statement, said he would "refrain from speculating or commenting on areas outside the scope of the investigation."

But he also responded to criticism that he overstepped, saying he could not have reached the conclusion he did "without assessing the president's state of mind."

Other elected representatives chose not to ask Hur any questions, such as Missouri Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat, who described Hur's report as a "partisan hit job" — though she said it was appropriate for both Trump and Biden to be investigated.

"Our country deserves better than this," she said of the hearing.

Texas Representative Nathaniel Moran praised Hur's efforts, asking him only yes-or-no questions and suggesting Biden could be ruled incompetent by a District of Columbia court and placed under guardianship. And he repeated the critical line from Hur's report — words sure to echo over November's presidential contest — although he prefaced it with an adjective, calling Biden a "sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."