Democrats have privately expressed fears about Joe Biden’s capacity to run for re-election, after the US President made another jarring gaffe while responding to a report which questioned his memory.
The Justice Department report, published on Thursday, found that Mr Biden “willfully” retained classified documents upon leaving his role as vice president to Barack Obama in 2017.
But special counsel Robert Hur opted not to bring criminal charges against the President, claiming that the 81-year-old’s “significantly limited” memory would make it difficult to secure a conviction.
“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,” he wrote.
Soon after the 345-page report’s publication, Mr Biden held a White House press conference in which he pushed back against Mr Hur’s characterisation of his mental state. “My memory is fine,” he told a reporter.
But at the same press conference, the President mistakenly referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the leader of Mexico while answering a question about the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The renewed focus on Mr Biden’s frailties has spooked Democrats, sparking anxious briefings about his ability to contest the 2024 election against a resurgent Donald Trump.
“It’s a nightmare,” one Democratic house member told NBC news, adding that “it weakens President Biden electorally, and Donald Trump would be a disaster and an authoritarian.”
“This is beyond devastating,” said another Democrat operative.
“It confirms every doubt and concern that voters have. If the only reason they didn’t charge him is because he’s too old to be charged, then how can he be president of the United States?”
When asked if the report affects how Democrats view Mr Biden’s chances as nominee, they added: “How the f**k does it not?”
A former aide to Mr Biden told Axios: “Taking the nomination away from Biden is like taking the car keys away from your parents.”
What did the report find?
FBI agents discovered classified documents on the Afghanistan war in Mr Biden’s Delaware garage in 2022, along with drafts of a handwritten memo he sent to President Barack Obama to persuade him not to commit more troops to the country.
Investigators said the notebooks included national security and foreign policy information that touched on “sensitive intelligence sources and methods.”
Mr Hur found that Mr Biden read aloud from classified parts of his notebooks “nearly verbatim” on at least three occasions during interviews with his ghostwriter in 2017.
Mr Biden’s actions presented “serious risks to national security, given the vulnerability of extraordinarily sensitive information to loss or compromise to America’s adversaries,” he wrote.
However, Mr Hur concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict Mr Biden of “willfully” retaining the Afghanistan documents or the notebooks.
When the materials were found in the garage, Mr Biden was allowed to have them because he was president at the time, the report said.
To bring charges, Mr Hur said prosecutors would have to rely on a comment that Mr Biden had made to his ghostwriter in 2017 – when he was a private citizen and living in Virginia – that he had “just found” classified documents downstairs.
But Mr Hur said Mr Biden could convince jurors that his that actions were not willful by arguing that he forgot about the documents shortly after finding them.
Mr Biden’s incorrect reference to President el-Sissi was the third time in a week that he had misnamed a world leader.
On Wednesday, he mistakenly referred to a conversation he had with former German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2021 as having taken place with Helmut Kohl, a previous chancellor, who died in 2017.
On Sunday, while talking about the 2021 G7 summit, he mixed up current French President Emmanuel Macron with François Mitterrand, who was in power from 1981 to 1995 and died in 1996.
Speaking at last night’s press conference, Mr Biden denied he improperly shared classified information and hit out at Mr Hur for questioning his recollection of key events, particularly the timing of his late son Beau’s death from cancer in 2015.
The President noted that he had sat for five hours of in-person interviews in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s October attack on Israel, when he was “in the middle of handling an international crisis”.
Publicly, Democrats have rallied around Mr Biden, criticising Mr Hur – a former US attorney who was nominated by then President Trump – for going beyond his remit and engaging in partisan politics.
White House lawyer Richard Sauber said the report contained “a number of inaccurate and inappropriate comments.”
Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for Barack Obama, wrote on X: “Robert Hur clearly decided to go down the Jim Comey path of filling his report absolving Biden of criminal activity with ad hominem attacks, like calling him an ‘elderly man with poor memory.’
“Not remotely subtle. Just a right-wing hit job from within Biden’s own DOJ. Wild.”
Stephanie Cutter, a former adviser to Mr Obama, posted: “Hur knew exactly what he was doing here.
“He gratuitously levelled a personal (not legal) charge against the president that he absolutely knows is a gift to Trump.”
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is close to Mr Biden, acknowledged that he would receive more calls from “people expressing concern” about the President.
Speaking to the New York Times, he said he would respond by recounting his direct experiences with Mr Biden, which he said demonstrated that the President was “sharp, engaged and purposeful.”
Chris Jackson, head of US public polling for Ipsos, told i that the “real damage” of the focus on Mr Biden’s mental state was that it pulled attention away from topics that are favourable to him electorally.
He said: “The Hur report has refocused American media attention on President Joe Biden’s age and alleged mental decline.
“This certainly doesn’t help Biden’s standing with the public, but its unlikely to fundamentally change anyone’s mind about Biden or his most likely challenger Donald Trump.
“The real damage it causes is pulling attention away from the wreckage of a deal on the border and Israel/Ukraine funding or on the improving economy, both of which were more favourable topic for Biden.”
Mr Trump and his allies seized upon the report to emphasise concerns about Mr Biden’s age and undermine the four prosecutions currently facing the presumptive Republican nominee.
“THIS HAS NOW PROVEN TO BE A TWO-TIERED SYSTEM OF JUSTICE AND UNCONSTITUTIONAL SELECTIVE PROSECUTION!” Mr Trump wrote on social media.
Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesperson for Make America Great Again, a group allied with Trump, said: “If you’re too senile to stand trial, then you’re too senile to be president.”