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Forgetfulness, Jokes and Overclassification: 5 Takeaways From Biden’s Interview With Special Counsel Robert Hur

President Joe Biden expressed anger with Special Counsel Robert Hur's report on Feb. 8. But the transcripts debunk Biden's claim that Hur brought up Beau Biden's death.
President Joe Biden expressed anger with Special Counsel Robert Hur's report on Feb. 8. But the transcripts debunk Biden's claim that Hur brought up Beau Biden's death. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Special Counsel Robert Hur testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday about his decision not to prosecute President Joe Biden for improperly retaining some classified documents between his vice presidency and presidency, as well as Hur’s description of Biden’s “significantly limited memory” in the February report announcing the decision not to prosecute.

Ahead of the hearing, the Justice Department released the transcripts of Hur and his team’s interviews of Biden on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.

There are no new revelations in the transcripts about what Biden did or did not do with classified documents, but the proceedings do shed some light on how the president viewed his actions and why Hur decided that his forgetfulness was worth mentioning.

Here are five takeaways from the Hur’s interviews of Biden:

Biden Brought Up Beau’s Death And Got The Year Wrong

In Hur’s Feb. 8 report, he cited as an example of Biden’s fading memory the president’s inability to remember the correct year that his son Beau died.

But at an indignant press conference hours after the report came out, Biden claimed that Hur had brought up Beau.

“How in the hell dare he raise that,” Biden said. “Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself it wasn’t any of their damn business.”

During the press conference, Biden did not address whether he’d gotten the date wrong when speaking with Hur, instead arguing that it had no bearing on whether he remembered his son had died.

“Every Memorial Day, we hold a service remembering him, attended by friends and family and the people who loved him,” he said. “I don’t need anyone to remind me when he passed away or if he passed away.”

But the transcripts of his interviews with Hur reveal that Biden brought up Beau unprompted to explain why his memory of how he stored documents in his Washington home between his vice presidency and presidency was hazy. 

“This is, what, 2017, 2018, that area?” Biden asked.

“Yes, sir,” Hur responded.

“Remember, in this time frame, my son is — either been deployed or is dying,” Biden said.

“And so, what was happening though — what month did Beau die? Oh God, May 30th,” he added.

Rachel Cotton, a White House attorney, interjected to inform him that Beau died in 2015.

Shortly afterward, Biden confused the month and year that former President Donald Trump got elected.

“And Trump gets elected in November of 2017?” he asked.

Unidentified people present corrected him that it was 2016.

Biden, right, then serving as vice president, talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt. Beau Biden in Iraq on July 4, 2009. Beau Biden died in 2015 from brain cancer.
Biden, right, then serving as vice president, talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt. Beau Biden in Iraq on July 4, 2009. Beau Biden died in 2015 from brain cancer. Khalid Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

Biden Could Not Recall Returning Any Specific Classified Documents

In an exchange with Hur and Deputy Special Counsel Marc Krickbaum, Biden could not recall how he came into possession of a document that he later learned was classified.

At one point on Oct. 9, the second day of the interviews, Biden mentioned that he had accidentally held onto a “notebook” — a bound stack of papers marked classified that the former vice president had given to a staffer to return to the DOJ, after realizing that he was not supposed to have it.

But he made clear that he was only aware of the incident because the special counsel’s investigation had unearthed it in an interview of a young Biden staffer at the time.

Asked whether he remembered the “notebook” on his own or only remembered being told, Biden replied, “I just remember being told that.” He could not recall anything about what was in the document, or the timing and the location of the incident.

Biden could not recall any other occasions in which he had unintentionally retained a document that turned out to be classified. But he did not preclude the idea that there were other such cases whose details he could not remember.

“I know that anything I found that had — when it was overwhelmingly clear that it was classified, I returned,” he said. “If you ask me how many times I did that; I don’t know.”

On other occasions, Biden sounded as if he could not recall certain dates in his vice presidency.

“The date is 4-20-09,” he said, referring to a document dated April 20, 2009. “Was I still vice president? I was, wasn’t I? Yeah.”

He later expressed uncertainty about what stage of his career he was in in 2009. “I’m at this stage, in 2009 — am I still vice president?” he asked. (Biden had then just become vice president.

Those comments are either reasonable slip-ups for a someone who spent 36 years in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009 and then president a decade later — or they might be evidence of the sort of forgetfulness that Hur argued were evidence of his fading faculties.

Diamond Joe Showed Up

The Biden who sat for Hur’s interviews appears in the transcripts to be less Joe Biden, President of the United States, and more Diamond Joe, the amiable, wise-cracking caricature of Biden created by the Onion satire site. Biden often made jokes — to put his interrogators at ease, to lighten the mood and probably to filibuster a bit.

The two-day-long questioning began a day after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack in Israel. On Oct. 8, Biden noted he had just gotten off the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hur thanked him for taking the time to be interviewed. “The FBI knows my house better than I do,” Biden responded, drawing laughs and breaking the ice. When told he can take a break any time, Biden mentioned a bathroom nearby, “for the rest of you as well.”

Another time, Biden talked about how he set up shop in a part of the Naval Observatory residence while he was vice president so he could “work in my pajamas.”

The exact location in the residence is undisclosed blacked out in the transcript but it may have been the bedroom or bathroom, given Jill Biden did not approve.

Hur: — just outside?

Biden: In the [redacted]

Hur: It was in the [redacted]? I see. That’s helpful.

Biden: My wife did not like it.

(Laughter)

And in a long discursive answer describing his Wilmington, Delaware, home, Biden went off on a tangent about a diplomatic trip to Mongolia where he was handed a bow during an archery demonstration and asked to hit a bale of hay.

Biden: Pure luck, I hit the goddamn target.

(Laughter)

Biden: I turned to the prime minister and handed it to him and the poor son-of-a-bitch couldn’t pull it back. I was, I was like, oh, God.

(Laughter)

Biden clearly relished the opportunity to wax lyrical about his areas of interest as vice president, as well as hobbies like the upkeep of his Corvette.

Asked about the files he kept at the Penn Biden Center after his vice presidency, Biden said that they covered topics he was interested in at the time: cancer, the Violence Against Women Act, genealogy and the pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

“I still communicate with the pope, if you know what I mean,” he said.

“He’s my ticket,” Biden added, apparently referring to how a relationship with the pope might help him get into heaven. The line prompted laughter from those present, including Hur.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), seen here at hearing in Jan. 1989, argued that the federal government classified too many documents.
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), seen here at hearing in Jan. 1989, argued that the federal government classified too many documents. Ron Sachs/Getty Images

‘Pat Moynihan Was Right.’

In the late 1990s, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) led a commission on government secrecy and the intelligence classification system. “Secrecy is a form of government regulation,” Moynihan said — a comment that’s since become a Washington saying to suggest the government classifies too much. How much information is classified has been an issue at the center of both Biden’s and former president Donald Trump’s cases involving their handling of classified documents.

In an aside on his first day, Biden agreed. “Pat Moynihan was right — we over-classify everything,” he said. Biden said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan would often write memos to him marked as “Eyes Only,” meaning for just him, until he finally asked Sullivan to be more judicious in his labeling.

“It’s so easy just to say, anything I write must be ‘Eyes Only.’ And 99.9% of it has nothing to do with anything I couldn’t pick up and read out loud to the public,” Biden said.

Biden Thought More Could Be Done To Fight Cancer

After losing a son to cancer, Biden focused on trying to advance the science of fighting the disease. One of his signature initiatives during his time as vice president was pushing for a cancer “moonshot,” an effort to turn finding a cure for cancer into a project as urgent as the space race. The transcript reflected how much this was still on his mind.

Biden said one reason he set up his post-vice presidency Penn Biden Center where he did was the University of Pennsylvania cancer research center. He believed there was not enough collaboration between researchers because they each thought they were on the path to getting their own Nobel Prize.

During the Obama administration, Biden said he attended meetings at the National Institutes for Health but made sure representatives from places like the Defense Department and NASA also attended. “I wanted the Defense Department in there because they had computers — a million, billion calculations per second. And no medical facility had that,” he said.

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