“There’s even reference that I don’t remember when my son died. How in the hell dare he raise that?” Biden said.
An angry, emotional US President Joe Biden defended his mental competence Thursday in a rare evening address to Americans to respond to biting comments in a report released hours earlier on his mishandling of classified documents.
Appearing on live television from the White House, Biden was furious over the report’s claim that he was unable to remember even the date of his son Beau’s death in 2015, as well as other key moments in his life.
“My memory is fine,” he said.
“There’s even reference that I don’t remember when my son died. How in the hell dare he raise that?” Biden said, visibly fighting to rein in his emotions.
The report from special counsel Robert Hur should have been good news for Biden.
It cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing in his storing of the classified documents, which he’d used while vice president under Barack Obama, at his private home and a former office.
This stands in sharp contrast with a separate criminal investigation into Biden’s likely November presidential rival Donald Trump, who is accused of taking vast quantities of top-secret documents after leaving the White House in 2021, then obstructing attempts to get them back.
However, Hur unleashed a political bombshell, just nine months from the election, by saying the 81-year-old Democrat came across as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Given Biden’s reduced mental acuity, Hur said, a jury would not in any case have found him guilty on documents charges.
Asked about that comment by reporters in the White House after his formal remarks, Biden said: “I am well meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing.”
“I’m president and I put this country back on its feet,” he said. “Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president.”
Speaker Mike Johnson and other top Republican leaders of the House of Representatives called Hur’s report “deeply disturbing” and said it showed Biden was “unfit” for the presidency.
“A man too incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information is certainly unfit for the Oval Office,” they said in a statement.
– Issue hard to dispel –
Earlier Thursday, Biden had declared that his exoneration by Hur on any legal issues meant “this matter is now closed.”
However, that clearly was not true — as Biden’s highly unusual, last-minute scheduling of televised remarks showed.
Biden has long been fighting attacks from the right and also some within his own party that he is too old to be president. As he gears up for the November election against Trump — a man he says poses an existential threat to US democracy — Biden is campaigning on his long experience and his stewardship of a fast-recovering, post-Covid economy.
“I’m the most qualified person in the United States to be president and finish the job,” he said in the late-evening remarks.
But it will be hard to shake the impact of Hur’s stinging comments.
Biden didn’t help himself either by momentarily mixing up Mexico with Egypt while answering a reporter’s question about Israel’s war in Gaza.
– Not ‘accurate’ or ‘appropriate’ –
Hur was appointed by Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, last year after classified material was found at the president’s home in Delaware and in a former office.
The 388-page report said Biden had “willfully retained and disclosed classified materials” in the period after he left the vice presidency — well before he defeated Trump in 2020 to become president.
Hur — previously nominated by Trump to be the lead prosecutor for the state of Maryland — said documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan and other matters were recovered by FBI agents.
However, “We conclude the evidence is not sufficient to convict, and we decline to recommend prosecution of Mr Biden for his retention of the classified Afghanistan documents,” Hur said.
Hur then said that “It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him — by then a former president well into his eighties — of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness.”
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White House special counsel Richard Sauber and Biden’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer attacked the comments as neither “accurate or appropriate.”
“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events,” they said in a letter to Hur. “Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report.”
The president noted that he had granted five hours of interviews to the special counsel on October 8 and 9, right as he was handling the start of the Israel-Hamas crisis.
© Agence France-Presse