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Legal exoneration for Biden but political nightmare begins

In World
February 09, 2024

WASHINGTON – The US Department of Justice’s decision on Feb 8 not to file criminal charges against US President Joe Biden for mishandling classified documents should have been an unequivocal legal exoneration.

Instead, it was a political nightmare.

The investigation into Mr Biden’s handling of the documents after being vice-president called him a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” and described interviews in which he could not recall when he served as vice-president, what year his son Beau died or whom he agreed with during policy debates.

The memory of the then-80-year-old president was so hazy during five hours of interviews with FBI investigators over two days, according to the report by Robert Hur, the special counsel, that it would be difficult to convince jurors that Mr Biden knew his handling of the documents was wrong. Mr Hur predicted in the report that if the president were charged, his lawyers “would emphasise these limitations in his recall”.

In part because of Mr Biden’s memory, Mr Hur declined to recommend charging the president for what the report described as willful retention of national security secrets, including some documents shared by the president that implicated “sensitive intelligence sources and methods”.

“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,” Mr Hur wrote.

In his own statement, Mr Biden appeared to suggest a reason for why he was distracted.

“I was so determined to give the special counsel what they needed that I went forward with five hours of in-person interviews over two days on Oct 8 and 9 of last year, even though Israel had just been attacked on Oct 7 and I was in the middle of handling an international crisis,” he wrote. “I just believed that’s what I owed the American people.”

The president’s lawyers, Mr Bob Bauer and Mr Richard Sauber, took exception in a Feb 5 letter with Mr Hur’s description of the president’s memory.

“It is hardly fair to concede that the president would be asked about events years in the past, press him to give his ‘best’ recollections and then fault him for his limited memory,” the lawyers wrote. “The president’s inability to recall dates or details of events that happened years ago is neither surprising nor unusual.”

Recurring theme

Concerns about Mr Biden’s age have been a recurring theme of his presidency over the past three years. Fuelled in part by video of the president appearing weak or stumbling in public, many voters have expressed concern about his mental and physical fitness as he seeks to remain in the White House until he is 86 years old.

During fundraisers on Feb 7, he twice recalled a 2021 conversation with Helmut Kohl, the one-time German chancellor, who died in 2017. His spokeswoman later said he mis-spoke, as many public officials do.

Mr Biden has tried to laugh off the issue, insisting that with age comes wisdom. And his aides have repeatedly insisted that despite how the president sometimes comes across in public, he remains sharp and tireless when he is in private, in discussions with aides or in meetings with foreign leaders.

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