Calmes: Will that special counsel report light a fire under Biden?

Sure, special counsel Robert Hur absolved President Biden of any criminality in retaining classified documents after his vice presidency. But was the Republican lawyer nonetheless angling for a federal judgeship from a future Republican president — say, from a reelected and grateful Donald Trump — with the investigatory report he released Thursday?

Hur, a Trump appointee and a Federalist Society member, would hardly seem to be “auditioning” for a judicial nomination by finding that “no criminal charges are warranted” against Biden, and that there’s no parallel with Trump’s alleged crimes involving classified information. Except for this: Hur’s exoneration of Biden has been all but lost in the attention to his grossly gratuitous words about the president’s age and his “diminished faculties” during Biden’s five hours of testimony to investigators.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Hur is too smart and politically savvy not to have foreseen the headlines: “Elderly man with a poor memory,” blared the front page of the Murdochs’ New York Post, quoting the special counsel’s report.

The report was a gift to Trump and his fellow Republicans, going right to Biden’s biggest weakness among voters: their doubts about the octogenarian’s ability to keep doing the job. Hur conceded on the report’s first page that after a year of investigation, investigators lacked evidence to make a case against the president for willfully retaining and sharing classified information. That should have been the end of it.

Instead, Hur additionally justified not bringing charges because “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

By adding that politically charged commentary, Hur violated Justice Department “just the facts” protocols, as he also should have known given the Comey precedent: In 2018, the department’s inspector general slammed then-FBI Director James B. Comey for criticizing Hillary Clinton, when she was running for president against Trump, as “extremely careless” in handling classified material, even as Comey announced “no reasonable prosecutor” would seek charges against her.

How ironic: Trump is boosted again by the very Justice Department that he and Republicans otherwise allege is weaponizing the government against him.

Trump immediately put out a fundraising email embracing the report as proof Biden is even “unfit to stand trial.” (As opposed to himself, fighting four indictments and 91 felony charges?) Echoing Trump as usual, House Republican leaders in a joint statement called Biden “unfit for the Oval Office.” (That was rich, after their own very bad week of governing incompetence showed once again that these “legislators” are unfit for Congress.)

Republicans would be crazy not to exploit Hur’s words for political gain. We’ll be seeing and hearing them in Trump’s political ads and speeches from now to November.

But Biden in those same months can push back. The damage is done, Democrats. Get over it, and get on with it.

Surrogates can help, attesting to the president’s fitness in their private dealings with him. (Last fall, Politico reported that since-deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy privately told Republican allies that Biden was “sharp and substantive” in their conversations, even as McCarthy mocked the president publicly as doddering.)

But Biden’s recovery ultimately requires show and tell. Only he can show skeptical voters he remains on top of things. The president can’t get any younger, but he can do much more to face the public and let Americans judge for themselves.

To that end, Biden was right to speak on camera in prime time Thursday, as word of Hur’s report was spreading, and to forcefully counter it. Yes, it was jarring that he misidentified the president of Egypt as being president of Mexico, but Trump recently called the leader of Hungary the head of Turkey and mixed up Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi seven times in a false diatribe about Jan. 6.

Biden was wrong to have declined for a second year the somewhat traditional invitation, this year from CBS, to be interviewed during the Super Bowl pregame show. “We hope viewers enjoy watching what they tuned in for — the game,” White House spokesperson Ben LaBolt told Variety. OK, lots of viewers dash to the refrigerator when the president comes on screen. But that still leaves a big and diverse audience of tens of millions of people to see Biden with his wits about him.

To be fair, Biden is crisscrossing the country to meet with voters and showcase the projects made possible by laws he’s signed. But he’s had fewer news conferences than any president in the past century except for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Too often it seems Biden is in a staff-spun cocoon, which allows critics and supporters to infer he’s being protected from making public gaffes. But what’s worse, Biden’s gaffes or Trump’s nonstop lies?

Only Biden can demonstrate the mastery of foreign and domestic affairs that he has, thanks to his decades in public service. And show it he must.

That’s how he can get reelected. And if he does, that will mean four more years in which there’s no Republican president to nominate Robert Hur to be a federal judge.

@jackiekcalmes