Feb 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Three wobbly leaders compete for Washington's worst week

McConnell, Biden and Johnson
McConnell, Biden and Johnson. Photos: Samuel Corum; Andrew Thomas/NurPhoto; Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden is an "elderly man with a poor memory." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn't have a firm grip on his conference. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) can't stop making rookie mistakes.

Why it matters: Washington's top leaders are stumbling and fumbling in public, giving their detractors fresh material — and free shots — to question their competence.

Driving the news: A week defined by GOP dysfunction took a sharp turn Thursday after special counsel Robert Hur released a scathing report alleging that Biden "willfully retained" classified materials after his vice presidency.

  • Hur concluded no criminal charges were warranted, but he characterized Biden's memory as "significantly limited" and dedicated swaths of the 388-page report to Biden's inability to recall simple facts — including the years he was vice president and when his son died.
  • The special counsel suggested it would be difficult for a jury to convict an 81-year-old former president of a "serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness."

Between the lines: The timing could not have been worse after a week in which Biden twice confused European leaders with their dead predecessors.

  • On Sunday, recounting a 2021 G7 story about whether America was truly "back" after the Trump years, Biden confused the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, with a deceased one — François Mitterrand. He left office in 1995 and died the following year.
  • The same story tripped Biden up at a fundraiser Wednesday evening in New York. This time, Biden placed Germany's Helmut Kohl at the center of the tale. The only problem: former Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the relevant 2021 meeting. Kohl died in 2017.
  • At the White House on Tuesday, Biden appeared to briefly forget the name of Hamas, referring to the Palestinian militant group as the "opposition." When a helpful reporter asked "Hamas?" Biden responded. "Yes, I'm sorry. Hamas."

In the House, Speaker Mike Johnson made a series of unforced tactical and strategic errors.

  • He brought an impeachment vote of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the floor without knowing the outcome. Embarrassingly, it failed.
  • "We not only block the Democrat agenda, we block the Republican agenda," Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) told Axios.
  • Johnson's gambit to send the Senate a $17.6 billion package for Israel also backfired, when it failed to win the required two-thirds support on the floor.

Then, Johnson signaled he was going to pick sides in Montana's contentious GOP Senate primary and support hard-right Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) over Tim Sheehy, the preferred candidate of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

  • After Punchbowl News reported on his plans, the blowback was fierce.
  • After speaking with NRSC chair Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Johnson reversed course on the endorsement — but then announced he would donate to Rosendale's campaign.

In the Senate, the 81-year-old McConnell watched a key legislative goal — linking money for Ukraine and to policy border policy changes — take unrelenting fire from his own colleagues.

  • Neither of his deputies — Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) or John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — came to his defense.
  • On Thursday, the Senate moved forward on a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific, but it faces an uncertain prospect in the House.

What they're saying: Biden's lawyers aggressively pushed back on Hur's characterizations of the president's memory, saying such "gratuitous" comments "have no place" in a DOJ report — especially one that does not recommend charges.

  • Johnson appeared to be sanguine about his setbacks, telling reporters, "Everybody take a deep breath. It's a long game."
  • McConnell has vowed to press forward but also claimed that his critics didn't have the numbers to take him down. "They had their shot," he told Politico.

Go deeper: Trump has his own age problem.

Go deeper