Biden row gives rare behind-the-scenes look at tightly controlled White House

While Joe Biden escaped prosecution over his mishandling of classified documents, the special counsel’s report left him looking guilty as charged when it comes to his failing memory.

Branding the US president a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory“, Robert Hur did almost as much damage to Mr Biden as if he had indicted him.

It wasn’t just the headline claim in Mr Hur’s report that was so damning, the details were awful for Mr Biden, too. It appeared we were finally getting a glimpse behind the scenes of the carefully-controlled Biden White House, which allows him to do barely any press briefings and even fewer interviews.

Now we know why.

According to Mr Hur, who was appointed by Mr Biden’s Attorney General, Merrick Garland, the president couldn’t remember the years he was vice president or the year his son Beau died. The latter is especially stunning as it was in 2015 and is seen as the reason why a grief-stricken Mr Biden did not run in the 2016 presidential election.

Mr Biden’s conversations with his ghostwriter were “often painfully slow” with the president “struggling to remember events and straining at times to read and relay his own notebook entries”.

Mr Hur goes on: “In his interview with our office, Mr Biden’s memory was worse.”

We even got an unflattering look inside Mr Biden’s garage in Delaware, including a photo that showed he stored the documents in a haphazard way, including next to a dog bed.

Such a mess showed that Mr Biden couldn’t have stored the classified material with malicious intent, Mr Hur said.

For Mr Biden, who at 81 is the oldest president in history, it was a blow to his weakest point outside of his handling of the migrant crisis.

His hastily-arranged press conference at the White House may have allowed him to rebut the charges but it arguably made things worse when he mixed up the presidents of Egypt and Mexico. That is exactly the kind of memory lapse the special counsel’s report talked about.

His wife, Jill Biden, has been a key figure in protecting him from this sort of unscripted interaction with reporters, The New York Times observed on Friday. In January 2022, when Mr Biden held a two-hour news conference, the first lady reportedly dropped by a meeting with the president and his aides and asked why nobody had stepped in to stop it – later receiving an apology from officials.

The former vice president has long been a gaffe machine but it has reached new levels since he won the White House in 2020. Polls show that voters, including Democrats, believe he is too old for the job and are worried about his mental decline.

In some senses the conclusion of the report wasn’t new as Mr Biden’s gaffes have been very public.

A quick search on social media brings up memes and supercuts of Mr Biden bungling everything from the names of wars to the names of his own family. Earlier this week, he mixed up French President Emmanuel Macron with Francois Mitterand, who died in 1996.

Last May, Mr Biden tried to shake hands with thin air after a speech in North Carolina.

Yet that doesn’t make the findings any more comfortable for a man who will be 86 at the end of his second term, should he win re-election.

All of this is a gift to Republicans and to Mr Biden’s likely rival this November, Donald Trump, who at 77 appears perma-tanned and vigorous by comparison.

Mr Biden’s best hope is that by November’s election, voters will have forgotten about it, a grim irony that few in the White House will be laughing at.