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Democrats fume over special counsel report questioning Biden’s memory

(The Hill) — Democrats are outraged over a special counsel report that raised new fears about President Biden’s memory, super-charging a long-standing issue that threatens to be the party’s biggest political liability in November. 

In a 388-page report, special counsel Robert Hur argued it would be unlikely for a jury to convict the president for his handling of classified documents, setting up what would ordinarily be a resounding relief for a struggling incumbent hoping for positive news. 

But Hur came to that assessment while also referring to the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” infuriating many within Biden’s party and driving a news narrative the White House desperately wants to avoid. Republicans seized on that one line, using it to attack Biden’s age and cognitive ability, while Democrats called it editorialized and highly politicized. 

“It is really concerning and points to a way bigger problem within how these two men are covered,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “The scrutiny and the coverage on whatever Biden’s gaffes are is 10,000 times what the scrutiny and the toughness and calling out are when Donald Trump rambles incoherently, mashes facts and comes across as if he has no grasp on reality.” 

Reinish called the display “infuriating.”

Bothered by the report on Thursday evening, Biden, who is notoriously averse to speaking to the press, appeared before a sea of eager reporters in a last-minute briefing, seeking to quell skeptical talk about his cognitive abilities at age 81. He shocked many who watched him answer questions in a defensive and flustered manner.  

“I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president; I put this country back on its feet. I don’t need his recommendation,” Biden pronounced.  

The in-the-moment awe of it all escalated when Biden inadvertently mixed up the leaders of Mexico and Egypt in the same remarks, adding fuel to criticism that he is not mentally capable of performing the highest job in the nation. Democrats were quick to counter that, reminding critical audiences that Trump has conflated the leaders of Turkey and Hungary and even some of his domestic foes — like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and current Republican rival Nikki Haley. 

Other Democrats saw parallels between Hur’s report and former FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell remarks in 2016 attacking then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for being careless with classified material as secretary of state. The last thing Democrats need in 2024 is another Comey-style snipe, many in the party suggested after the dizzying news day opened up more questions about what could come next for Biden. 

“I think you can file it under the double standard, Comey 2.0 file,” said Democrat Antjuan Seawright, who helped Biden’s election effort in South Carolina last cycle. “The special counsel obviously did not indict Biden legally, so he decided to manufacture political outrage by indicting him politically.”  

While the bad optics provided easy fodder for the Republican opposition, Democrats largely tried to spin the timing of it all the best they could, arguing Team Biden still has months to go.

If it were to happen at all, some pro-Biden Democrats say, it’s better now than later.  

“The good news for Biden and Democrats is this report is coming out in February and not October. This is not 11 days before the election, like what Jim Comey did,” said Democratic communications strategist Doug Gordon. “The election is still nine months away and there is plenty of time to change voters’ perceptions. And there will certainly be other big events over that period that will shake up the race,” he said. 

The greater Trump factor, these Democrats argue, ranges from his shaky standing with some voting blocs and the still-unknown ending to his many legal problems.  

“It also helps that Biden is running against someone who not only has memory issues but over 90 criminal indictments,” Gordon said.

Bidenworld has hinged the president’s election case this year on the line that he is the most seasoned Democrat to beat Trump after defeating him four years prior. Allies still push that narrative, emphasizing Biden’s success last election against conventional wisdom.  

A decent showing in the 2022 midterms gave Democrats more padding to make that argument, and tangible factors like a strong economy and a handful of sizable legislative wins added credibility to their pitch. Most recently, Biden easily won the first series of early state primaries, and while he was up against significantly smaller rivals within his party, voters showed an overwhelming desire to re-nominate him to run in a likely rematch against Trump.   

Democrats in favor of moving forward with Biden see the age issue as a lingering, unchangeable factor that’s existed since he announced his intention to run for another term in April.

“The age question is never going away, that was true last week and is true today,” said Josh Schwerin, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist who’s worked for Clinton and the Democratic National Campaign Committee. “The reality is we’re in February and both campaigns are going to have some good days and some days where they feel like the sky is falling.” 

The idea that a rematch is all but certain, Schwerin says, has still not necessarily permeated the public consciousness. Polling shows voters are longing for alternatives on both sides of the aisle and have not necessarily settled on the two politically fraught choices in front of them. 

“Many of the voters who are going to decide this election haven’t even come to terms with the fact that this race is Joe Biden vs Donald Trump,” he said. “And the general public has memory holed the trauma of Trump’s first term.”

Still, while Democrats supportive of Biden’s candidacy were ready to present the events the best they could, others within the party who have advocated for a change in leadership highlighted Biden’s considerable political flaws with voters.

Seventy-six percent of voters, for example, said they have “major concerns” about Biden not having the mental or physical health to serve as president for a second term, according to an NBC News national poll released earlier this week.  

“The newly released special counsel report just reinforces what many Americans feared and the Biden-bubble will not admit, President Biden may not be up for another full term,” Nina Turner, who co-chaired Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presidential campaign in 2020 and has been outspoken against Biden’s candidacy, told The Hill.

“No amount of gaslighting, denial or delusion on the part of the Democratic insiders is going to change these facts,” Turner said. “The American people have every right to be concerned. Bottom line, it is incredibly selfish for both Biden and Trump to be running again at this stage of their lives. Do they have the right to? Yes. Should they? Absolutely not.” 

Indeed, critics point to the consistent polling that shows Biden’s age as a high priority, often topping other more typical election-era issues. White House officials are hesitant to engage with that line of inquiry and Biden himself downplayed questions about his ability to carry on as the country’s chief executive, saying, “my memory’s fine” from the podium.  

David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief political strategist who has often vocalized problems he sees in Biden’s campaign approach, said Friday on CNN that for Biden and the White House, “how you deal with it is a real problem.”

“I’m not sure that putting him in front of a group of hungry reporters who are shouting at him is necessarily the best way for him to communicate,” he said.

Even some who believe Hur crossed a line — with one operative going as far as to say that he “embarrassed himself” and that the presentation was “deeply shameful” — also concede that his wording could resonate with voters.  

“Unfortunately, this report is likely to break through to voters,” said Sawyer Hackett, a political strategist and senior adviser to former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro. “It’s catnip to the beltway press and pundit class because it reinforces Biden’s perceived vulnerabilities.” 

“Biden won’t be able to shake the age factor. It’s not going to go away,” he said. “But in this race, I would much rather be the well-meaning, elderly candidate than the criminal candidate, the corrupt candidate, the authoritarian candidate.”