July 21st, 2024

Biden says he never meant to keep classified documents. Hur stands by report on president’s memory

By Zeke Miller, Colleen Long And Farnoush Amiri, The Associated Press on March 12, 2024.

FILE - U.S. Attorney Robert Hur arrives at U.S. District Court in Baltimore, on Nov. 21, 2019. The special counsel who impugned the president's age and competence in his report on how Joe Biden handled classified documents is set to be questioned himself on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) – Over five hours of interviews, President Joe Biden repeatedly told a special counsel that he never meant to retain classified information after he left the vice presidency, but it shows he was at times fuzzy about dates and said he was unfamiliar with the paper trail for some of the sensitive documents he handled.

The special counsel, for his part, stood by his assessment of the president’s memory as “accurate and fair,” in prepared testimony to be delivered to Congress on Tuesday.

The Associated Press reviewed a transcript of the Biden interviews, which were being turned over to Congress by the Justice Department on Tuesday just hours before the special counsel, Robert Hur, was going before the House Judiciary Committee to face questions about his investigation of Biden.

Hur, in his report, concluded that Biden should not face criminal charges over his mishandling of documents but also impugned the president’s age and competence.

In prepared remarks, Hur said: “What I wrote is what I believe the evidence shows, and what I expect jurors would perceive and believe. I did not sanitize my explanation. Nor did I disparage the President unfairly,” he said.

While Biden fumbled some details in his interview, the full transcript could raise questions about Hur’s depiction of the 81-year-old president as having “significant limitations” on his memory.

At the same time, it makes plain that the Republican lawyer never asked Biden about the timing of his son’s death, contradicting the president’s indignant public objections to that supposed line of questioning.

Both the hearing and the transcript were meant to clear up lingering questions about Hur’s report on the discovery of some classified records at Biden’s home and former Washington private office. But there was no guarantee they would alter preconceived notions about the president or the Trump appointee who investigated him, particularly in a hard-fought election year.

On Capitol Hill, Hur appeared set to be the rare witness likely to be vilified all around – by Republicans angry over his decision not to charge the president, and by Democrats for his unflattering commentary about Biden.

Republicans were likely to dig further into Hur’s assessment of the president’s age and memory – a major attack line as they seek to unseat Biden come November. Democrats will try to paint Hur, whom Donald Trump appointed a U.S. attorney, as a political partisan out to help his party win a presidential election.

Hur’s report cited evidence that Biden willfully held on to highly classified information and shared it with a ghostwriter, based on audio of the conversations between the two men in which Biden said he had just come across some classified documents at his home.

In the interviews, Biden said he did not recall the exchange, or that he had actually discovered any documents. He said if he had discussed anything questionable with the ghostwriter, it was in referring to a 20-page sensitive memo he had written to then-President Barack Obama in 2009 arguing against surging troops in Afghanistan that he wanted to ensure didn’t make it into publication.

Hur devoted much of his report to explaining why he did not believe the evidence against Biden met the standard for criminal charges, partly based on the hours of interviews with the president.

In his prepared remarks, Hur said he was aware of the need to explain in great detail why he’d decided not to charge the president. Such explanations are common but usually kept confidential; and so he didn’t hold back, particularly in this case.

“The need to show my work was especially strong here,” he said. “The attorney general had appointed me to investigate the actions of the attorney general’s boss, the sitting president of the United States. I knew that for my decision to be credible, I could not simply announce that I recommended no criminal charges and leave it at that. I needed to explain why.”

Hur cautioned that he would not discuss investigative steps or veer from the contents of the report. said “the evidence and the President himself put his memory squarely at issue.”

In the report, Hur said that it could be difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Biden intended to keep the documents, which is the standard for conviction in a criminal case. In part, he argued, jurors could be swayed that Biden’s age made him seem forgetful, and there was the possibility for “innocent explanations” for the mishandling of any records.

“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,” Hur wrote in his report.

In his interviews, Biden repeatedly told prosecutors that he did not know how classified documents ended up at his home and former Penn Biden Center office in Washington.

“I have no idea,” he said.

He also insisted that had he known they were there, he would have returned them to the government.

The president did acknowledge that he intentionally kept his personal diaries – which officials said contained classified information. Biden insisted were his own property, a claim also asserted by previous presidents and vice presidents, and that he had a right to keep them.

He also acknowledged that he was “never that organized,” as prosecutors pressed him on why some of the documents were located in different places.

Hur, in his report, detailed how his findings about Biden were far different from those of special counsel Jack Smith about Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has been charged with willfully retaining classified documents.

FBI agents searched Trump’s Florida estate in 2022 and removed boxes of documents marked as classified after he refused multiple requests from the National Archives to return them.

Biden, by his own admission, has retained such a sprawling assortment of photos, documents and artifacts from his more than 50 years in public life that he can’t keep track of everything.

When asked if first lady Jill Biden kept her things with his, he said, “She wants nothing to do with my filing system.” He added, to laughs from the lawyers, “not even kidding.”

The transcript also offered a rare window into the mind of a sitting president, revealing his his humor and his obsessions – including his beloved Corvette and his keen interest in construction work at his home in Wilmington – as well as the rigors of the presidency and international crises.

Biden first sat down with Hur during a time of crisis, one day after the devastating Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

He entered the first day of the interview having just gotten off the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, part of a series of calls meant to prevent the attack from spiraling into a wider regional confrontation. At multiple points, when Hur suggested a pause, Biden encouraged prosecutors to keep going, saying, “I’ll go all night if we get this done.”

Biden said that he left it to his staff to safeguard classified information that was presented to him, often leaving papers on his desk in heaps for aides to sort through and secure.

“I never asked anybody,” Biden said. He noted that much of his staff had worked with him for years, to the point where they didn’t need direction from him. “It just – it just got done. I don’t know. I can’t remember who.”

Confusion over the timing of the death of Biden’s adult son Beau – who died May 30, 2015 – was highlighted by Hur in his report as an example of the president’s memory lapses. But the transcript shows that Hur never asked Biden about his son specifically, as a visibly angry Biden had suggested in comments to reporters the day the report was released.

“How in the hell dare he raise that,” Biden said of Hur. “Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself it wasn’t any of their damn business.”

But the transcript suggests that the exchange was less revealing about Biden’s memory than Hur let on, and that Biden’s recollection of it during his emotional White House remarks was incorrect.

Hur asked Biden about where he kept the things that he was “actively working on” while he was living in a rental home in Virginia immediately after leaving the vice presidency in January 2017. And in that context, it was Biden himself who brought up Beau’s illness and death as he talked about a book he’d published later in 2017 about that painful time.

“What month did Beau die?” Biden mused, adding, “Oh God, May 30th.”

A White House lawyer then chimed in with the year, 2015.

“Was it 2015 he died?” Biden asked again.

Biden went on to recount in detail the story contained in his book, “Promise Me, Dad,” of how his late son had encouraged him to remain engaged in public life after the Obama administration ended.

The Department of Justice redacted information about other people involved in the case, and the National Security Council and the State Department blacked out some details relating to sensitive intelligence and foreign affairs matters. Before the redactions, the transcript had been classified as top secret and barred from dissemination to foreign nationals.

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Associated Press Writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.

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