The special counsel investigating Joe Biden’s handling of classified records while he was out of office announced on Thursday that it would not charge the president for having classified documents at his home in Delaware. But the announcement was quickly overshadowed by special counsel Robert Hur’s stated opinion that Biden had “diminished faculties and [a] faulty memory” in their conversations together. Hur also wrote that Biden could not recall the year of his son Beau’s death. I spoke with New York political columnist Jonathan Chait to help gauge how this could impact the public perception of Biden’s age, consistently the biggest concern about the president in polling.
Benjamin Hart: Obviously, the age and memory aspect of this special-counsel report is not good news for anyone who wants to see Joe Biden reelected. But beyond the initial freakout, and nine months from the actual election, how damaging do you think this is?
Jonathan Chait: I think the damage question has two components. The first is, how much will this report directly affect Biden’s polling? And second, how much should it increase concern about Biden’s ability to campaign between now and Election Day?
On the first, I think this will sting. There are damaging quotes in the report that Trump can use in ads. People have seen Biden perform, and he looks old, so it’s not a shock, but it’s certainly harmful. On the second, I think it helps explain Biden’s limited media availability. He does interviews, but not very often. I think aides are probably concerned about him gaffing in ways that compound the age concerns (above his lifelong habit of gaffing in other ways). I wanted Biden to step aside last fall. It’s too late now, but the downsides haven’t gone away and seem worse.
Ben: This could spur Biden to do more unscripted media. (He does plenty of the scripted variety, as a colleague pointed out.) That could have upsides — showing people he’s still on his game. That could have downsides — he might make embarrassing mistakes. It’s a tough issue to strategize around. How do you think they should play this?
Jon: I think Biden’s best response is to simply show what he’s done. He looks very old, but he has obviously managed to handle the job — there’s no aspect of the presidency other than communications that he’s been inhibited from doing. So I think his answer has to be to turn the conversation to his actual results. Is he too old to cut deals with Congress? No. Is he too old to organize allies to respond to foreign events? No.
Ben: The thing is from my anecdotal experience, many people think he’s not just forgetful, but senile, being controlled by advisers, not really in charge of the presidency — a perception that today’s report will only deepen, even though a raft of reporting contradicts it. Do you think just pointing to results is the best way to combat that particular perception?
Jon: Well, if he’s controlled by advisers, is that unacceptable? If the advisers are making good decisions? Reagan was pretty senile and controlled by advisers. Everybody’s forgotten this, but the accounts of his mental state are harrowing. Nobody cared because the results were fine. But Reagan would do things like greet his own HUD secretary, “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”
Ben: I think the idea of that makes voters generally uncomfortable. And Reagan’s worst days came after he’d already been reelected, right?
Jon: You’re right that Reagan was worse in the second term, but it was a big issue in 1984, too.
Ben: So much of this also comes down to presentation. Donald Trump is constantly making grievous memory errors and what have you, but he just seems vigorous (if insane) when speaking. Reagan seemed pretty authoritative. And Biden often seems feeble — though he also often seems perfectly sharp, as he did today when he addressed the report in a speech.
Jon: Yes, Biden seems more feeble than Reagan. I think a lot of that is his physical limitations — his slow walk — and the vocal problem he has that prevents him from projecting. Some old people have that problem. I was at a party a little while ago with an older lady who just couldn’t vocalize loudly enough to be heard.
A related issue that helps Trump, and hurts Biden, is that Biden takes care when he’s talking not to say something crazy. That fear can slow you down a lot when your brain isn’t at its peak capacity. Trump just blasts through because making sense has never mattered to him. If Biden rambled like Trump did, people would be concerned. But Trump is, wrongly, held to a lower standard of cogency.
Ben: To go back to the report itself: Is it possible that Hur could have taken Biden out of context a bit and interpreted his musings as, say, seriously not knowing when he was VP?
Jon: I suppose it’s possible Biden was answering questions by thinking out loud, “Was I still vice-president?” If he has a good defense, I could see why he’d want to release the tape of that interview. The problem is that it could and would be pulled out of context for attack ads, even if the context made him look good! So this is a tough situation.
Ben: The language special counsel Robert Hur uses also struck me as quite — well, maybe not partisan, but sometimes unnecessarily charged. Like when he writes that Biden was “hazy when describing the Afghanistan debate that was once so important to him.” Or when he conjures a hypothetical defense Biden might use in court, which is where the “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” line comes from. What did you make of that?
Jon: I understand the legal relevance of the point. It does seem like he was going out of his way to editorialize. On the other hand, he did also elaborate on the differences between Biden’s handling of documents and Trump’s, so it doesn’t seem malicious, necessarily.
If the White House wants to complain about Hur’s editorializing, they should acknowledge that he editorialized by calling Biden “well-meaning,” which I absolutely agree with, but is also subjective. More to the point, it’s a highly pertinent distinction in this campaign. Nobody would call Donald Trump well-meaning!
Fundamentally, it’s strange that Biden’s age should even rate as a concern when his opponent is a deranged criminal authoritarian who is also pretty old and scattered. But the world is a strange and frequently unfair place.