A bombshell report raising questions about President Biden’s mental acuity has sparked new anxieties among House Democrats, who fear the focus on the president’s age could hamstring their efforts to flip control of the lower chamber in November’s elections.
The Democrats are quick to emphasize that they disagree strongly with the assessments of special counsel Robert Hur, whose report into Biden’s handling of classified documents painted the president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Many Democrats are furious with the portrayal, accusing Hur of overstepping his charge with political smears.
But the Democrats also acknowledge that, fairly or not, the report has provided new ammunition for an old GOP attack line: That the 81-year-old Biden is suffering the frailties of age in ways that make him unfit to hold the office — a narrative that’s emerged as a chief vulnerability for the president and his party heading into November.
“Democrats are going to say that [Hur] put a lot of stuff in there that he shouldn’t have. His job was not to analyze whether [Biden] is old or not, his job was: Did he commit a crime or not?” said a former Democratic aide who maintains close contact with Capitol Hill.
“But that’s neither here nor there. It feeds into the narrative that he’s too old.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) delivered a similar message. Huffman went after Hur as “a grandstanding prosecutor making gratuitous insulting remarks while not bringing charges.”
But he also conceded that the report, by feeding the GOP’s portrait of a feeble president, could be damaging to Democrats.
“It’s not fair,” Huffman said, “but this narrative is going to be with us whether we like it or not and it is worrisome.”
Released Thursday, Hur’s report found that Biden, after serving as vice president in the Obama administration, had “willfully retained and disclosed classified materials,” but his actions did not rise to a level deserving criminal charges.
That component of the findings marked a victory for the president. And speaking to Democrats at their annual strategy retreat in Northern Virginia shortly after the report was released, Biden focused squarely on the absence of charges and his cooperation in the investigation — two features that have set him apart from former President Trump, who is under indictment for his handling of classified documents after he left the White House in 2021.
“The bottom line is, a special counsel in my case decided against moving forward with any charges. And this matter is now closed,” Biden told the Democrats at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va.
Yet Hur also made clear that his decision not to bring charges was derived, at least in part, from his assessment that a jury would likely not convict the president — a “sympathetic” figure with a “poor memory” — in a trial that would be years away.
“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,” the report reads.
The White House quickly sought to contain the damage, staging a press conference with Biden Thursday night, when he delivered a fiery defense of his health and condemned Hur’s judgments as wildly inaccurate.
“I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” he said.
“I’ve been president; I put this country back on its feet. I don’t need his recommendation.”
Yet the event later turned combative when Biden opened the floor to questions and clashed with some of the reporters in the room over the public perception of his health and mental fitness — exchanges that churned headlines and caused even some of Biden’s Democratic allies to denounce his strategy.
“That’s not the way you want to do it. I think we can all agree on that,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Friday in an interview with CNN. “He was angry, he was frustrated by what came out, there was not a prepared, clear agenda of ‘OK, here’s my explanation, here’s what I’m doing,’ and it didn’t go well. There’s no doubt about it.”
Republicans wasted no time seizing on Hur’s findings, saying they were just the latest evidence that Biden’s health is deteriorating and he should remain a one-term president. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) blasted out a fundraising email warning that Biden is a risk to national security.
“If Joe Biden is too incapable to be held accountable for mishandling classified information, then he is undoubtedly unfit for the Oval Office,” Johnson’s message reads.
Publicly, most Democrats have rushed to Biden’s defense, noting that Trump, the runaway favorite to win the GOP’s presidential nomination, is 77 years old and frequently makes his own gaffes in interviews and speeches on the campaign trail. In one prominent episode last month, he appeared to mistake Nikki Haley for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
A number of Democrats downplayed the significance of Hur’s report, characterizing it as a piece of Beltway navel gazing that will have little resonance beyond Washington, especially given that the elections are still nine months away.
“There is an eternity between now and November,” said Licy Do Canto, an adviser to former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). “The story will come and go as a chapter in a broader question about the role of age and wisdom in running for public office.
“In my view, it doesn’t do some catastrophic damage that those have suggested about it, and even those who, for hyperbole, have suggested that this is the worst day of his presidency,” added Do Canto, now with APCO Worldwide, a global consulting company.
“I think that’s just Washington trying to act more sophisticated than it is.”
Others noted that the news cycle moves quickly, and predicted that Hur’s report would soon be overtaken in the public eye by the actions of Congress this week, when the House is expected to vote on the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Johnson will have to decide how to approach a package of aid for Ukraine and Israel, and voters on Long Island will go to the polls to decide who will replace former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), who was expelled late last year.
Given the high stakes in Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, some observers said the outcome of that contest will, by itself, eclipse the Hur report by mid-week. By November, they said, it’ll be completely forgotten.
“These things last until the next thing,” said the former Democratic aide. “The election will dominate everything. Win or lose, for Democrats, it’ll dominate everything. And it’ll change the subject.”