Updated Feb 10, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Inside the White House's fight to defend Biden's fitness

President Biden answers questions at a press conference

President Biden responds to reporters' questions Thursday evening at the White House. Photo: Samuel Corum/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Day 2 of the White House's damage-control plan defending President Biden's fitness for office called for a coordinated attack on special counsel Robert Hur.

Why it matters: Biden's team scrambled to counter Hur's report that called the president an "elderly man with a poor memory" — and aides rushed to defend Biden's performance at a late-night press conference that left even some Democrats thinking Hur had a point.

  • Biden officials — led by Vice President Kamala Harris — questioned Hur's motives, echoing Biden's anger that Hur's zinger about Biden's memory overshadowed Hur's decision not to charge the president over his handling of classified documents.
  • Harris, assuming a traditional vice presidential role of attacking the president's opponents, said Hur's assessment of Biden's mental abilities were "gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate."

Zoom in: The president learned early this week that Hur's report was coming, and it was always Biden's plan to address the report head-on — and answer questions from reporters, aides say.

  • Earlier in the week, Biden's private attorneys had briefed him on the report's contents, but the timing of its release wasn't fully set.
  • As he was about to head to a House Democrats' retreat in Leesburg, Va., on Thursday, the Justice Department released Hur's full report — including Hur's claim that during interviews, Biden couldn't recall the year his son Beau had died of a brain tumor (2015).

At the retreat, in private conversations and in public comments, Biden's anger began to boil over.

  • He returned to the White House before 6pm and addressed reporters — and the nation — two hours later.
  • Biden delivered an angry, emotional defense during his prepared remarks, seething that Hur would question his memory on one of the most searing moments of his life: Beau's death.
  • But later, responding to reporters' shouted questions, the 81-year-old president confused Egypt's president with Mexico's while answering a question about the war in Gaza.

Driving the news: On Friday, the administration's mission of defending Biden — and his press conference — was clear.

  • After an unrelated White House event, Harris lingered at the lectern to take questions from reporters — a rare occurrence. She took aim at Hur, a former U.S. attorney who'd been a Trump appointee — a fact Biden aides have noted repeatedly since the report's release.
  • "The way that the president's demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts, and clearly politically motivated," Harris said, adding that she brought the perspective of a former prosecutor.
  • The White House also had White House Counsel spokesperson Ian Sams go through the report nearly line-by-line on camera. His words rang familiar.
  • "You're left to wonder why this report spends time making gratuitous and inappropriate criticisms of President Biden," Sams said.

The big picture: Biden aides' attack on Hur's credibility has some similarities to Donald Trump's playbook against special counsel Jack Smith, who has charged Trump in cases involving classified documents and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

  • Biden wants to convince supporters and potential supporters that the embarrassing revelations of an investigation are not on the level.
  • Biden advisers argue that Hur's decision to offer a damning personal assessment of the president deviated from Department of Justice standards.
  • Some legal experts, however, contended that Hur detailed Biden's memory lapses to explain why he didn't charge the president for mishandling classified documents.

Zoom out: Democrats and media figures unloaded on Biden's performance Thursday night, but on Friday top aides inside the White House said they actually were happy with Biden's defiance and insisted that he connected with voters by talking about his deceased son.

  • They also noted that they've been dealing with questions about Biden's age since 2019 — and have accepted that such questions will follow Biden to the Nov. 5 election.
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