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Biden defends how he handled classified docs after scathing special counsel report

President Biden defended his handling of classified documents and his mental acuity in a fiery news conference Thursday evening at the White House.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden defended his handling of classified documents and his mental acuity in a fiery news conference Thursday evening at the White House.

Updated February 8, 2024 at 8:54 PM ET

President Biden gave a fiery defense of his mental acuity at the White House on Thursday evening after a Justice Department special counsel delivered a report that described him as an "elderly man with a poor memory" who had trouble remembering timelines.

Biden emphasized that the DOJ concluded he should not be charged over classified documents found in his home and an office — and quoted sections of the report that contrasted his behavior with that of former President Donald Trump, who faces federal charges related to retention of classified documents.

Biden blamed his staff for the documents being in the wrong places, and said he should have overseen their efforts more closely.

He angrily responded to special counsel Robert Hur's description of a portion of an interview in which Hur said Biden seemed to not remember when his son, Beau, died.

"How in the hell dare he raise that?" Biden said, adding it was "none of their damn business," and choking up with emotion. "I don't need anyone to remind me when he passed away," he said. He said that Hur's description did not belong in the report. "They don't know what they're talking about," he said.

Beau Biden died in 2015.

Asked by a reporter about the description of being "a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory," Biden said: "I'm well meaning and I'm an elderly man and I know what I'm doing."

Asked if his memory had become worse, he said: "My memory is fine."

But when he answered a question about current hostage negotiations with Israel and Hamas, Biden mistakenly said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt was the "president of Mexico."

In recent days in off-camera events, Biden has thrice mixed up names of foreign leaders, calling French President Emmanuel Macron "Mitterrand" and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel "Helmut Kohl." François Mitterrand and Kohl were former leaders of France and Germany, respectively.

Biden also notably said that Israel's war in the Gaza Strip after Hamas' October 2023 attack was "over the top."

Biden counters report on classified documents

The president's remarks came hours after Hur's report said Biden willfully held onto classified materials after leaving the Obama administration and becoming a private citizen. No criminal charges were recommended in the report.

"We conclude that no criminal charges are warranted in this matter," the report says. "We would reach the same conclusion even if Department of Justice policy did not foreclose criminal charges against a sitting president."

In his report, Hur described Biden as "a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory" and said it would have been "difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him ... of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness" in his retention of classified Afghanistan documents. The report described Biden having trouble remembering timelines and details.

In his remarks Thursday evening, Biden said assertions that he willfully retained classified materials is "not only misleading, but also plain wrong."

Yet Hur's report says its investigation "uncovered evidence that President Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified materials after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen." These materials included documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan, and notebooks with entries about "issues of national security and foreign policy implicating sensitive intelligence sources and methods."

The contrast to Trump

Hur's decision not to pursue charges against the president brings an end to an investigation that began after Biden's lawyers found classified documents in November 2022 in the offices of the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C.

Biden's personal attorneys turned over those materials, which were said to date to his time as vice president, to the National Archives and Records Administration. Federal agents then found a small number of additional classified documents in a search of Biden's home in Wilmington, Del. Agents also searched Biden's vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., but did not turn up any sensitive materials.

In his remarks at the White House, Biden attempted to draw a distinction between his handling of classified documents and Trump's handling of similar documents.

"I was especially pleased to see special counsel make clear the stark distinction and difference between this case and Mr. Trump's case," he said.

Trump is facing more than three dozen federal criminal charges after boxes of classified material were uncovered in unsecure locations at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump and his associates have pleaded not guilty in the federal case, which is being prosecuted by special counsel Jack Smith.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Washington Desk