Joe Biden made a short last-minute speech on Thursday after a report from the justice department questioned his ability to remember key events and facts while also clearing him of criminal charges over his handling of highly classified materials.
In his fiery remarks, he sought to emphasize that he participated in a five hour interview for the investigation in the days after the 7 October attack on Israel, when he was occupied with pressing concerns. “I was in the middle of handling an international crisis,” he said.
“My memory is fine,” Biden also told a reporter when taking questions. However, Biden made one error in his remarks, mistaking Mexico and Egypt, in a response to a question on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The year-long investigation by special counsel Robert Hur centered on Biden’s improper retention of highly classified documents from his time as a senator and as vice-president to Barack Obama.
Hur, a Republican, found that Biden “willfully” retained and disclosed the materials, including documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan. The report includes photos of documents inside a damaged cardboard box in the garage of his Delaware home. In his speech, Biden called the idea that he willfully retains documents “misleading and just plain wrong”.
Among the reasons Hur gave for not bringing charges was a concern that jurors would not believe that Biden knowingly kept the documents. The special counsel explicitly referenced the 81-year-old’s “significantly limited” memory – an incendiary topic in this year’s election – including his inability to remember what year his son Beau died.
“We have also considered that, at trial, 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,” Hur wrote.
“Based on our direct interactions with and observations of him, he is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him – by then a former president well into his 80s – of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness.”
They wrote: “We do not believe that the report’s treatment of President Biden’s memory is accurate or appropriate. The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events.
“Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report, particularly one that in the first paragraph announces that no criminal charges are ‘warranted’ and that ‘the evidence does not establish Mr. Biden’s guilt.’”
Addressing a House Democratic caucus issues conference in Leesburg, Virginia, on Thursday, Biden accentuated the positive side of the report. “I was especially pleased to see the senior special counsel make clear there’s stark differences between this case and Donald Trump,” he said. “Bottom line is the special counsel in my case decided against moving forward on any charges. This matter is now closed.”
But the release of the report is likely to play into the US’s bitterly contested 2024 election, with Republicans poised to jump on any criticism of the president. Trump is also being investigated for improperly holding on to classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The Biden documents included a handwritten memo to then President Obama in 2009 opposing a planned troop surge in Afghanistan and handwritten notes related to intelligence briefings and national security meetings, the report found.
Sensitive records were found in 2022 and 2023 at Biden’s Delaware home and at a private office that he used between his service in the Obama administration and becoming president.
According to Hur’s report, Biden told a writer working on his memoir during a February 2017 conversation at a home he was renting in Virginia that he had “just found all the classified stuff downstairs”.