Joe Biden lashed out at a US Department of Justice special counsel report that cast the US president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, in a hastily organised press conference at the White House on Thursday night.
The report released earlier in the day painted a politically damaging picture of Biden even as he was spared from criminal charges following a months-long probe.
Special counsel Robert Hur, who oversaw the investigation into the president’s handling of classified materials found at his private residences and offices, concluded that Biden, 81, had “wilfully retained and disclosed” sensitive documents.
While the report said he would not face a criminal case, it said the president’s “memory was significantly limited” during interviews with Hur’s office in 2023, as well as with a ghostwriter working on his memoir in 2017.
The president is facing mounting concerns about his advanced age as he tries to convince voters to give him another four years in the White House.
“My memory is fine,” Biden shot back in Thursday night’s press conference, which grew increasingly hostile as reporters shouted questions about his age and mental acuity.
The report said that in interviews with the special counsel’s office the president “did not remember when he was vice-president” and could not remember, “even within several years”, when his son, Beau Biden, died.
Biden became visibly angry when he talked about the allegation regarding his son. “How the hell dare he raise that,” he said of the special counsel. “I don’t need anyone to remind me of when he passed away.”
The report said that, coupled with Biden’s “co-operation” with the probe, jurors in a potential trial could be easily convinced Biden “made an innocent mistake” and did not intend to break the law.
“We have also considered that, at trial, 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,” the report said.
“It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him — by then a former president well into his eighties — of a serious felony that requires a mental state of wilfulness.”
Biden pushed back directly on that characterisation: “I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man and I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president, and I’ve put this country back on its feet. I don’t need his recommendation.”
The report comes after several gaffes for the president in recent days. Speaking last weekend at an event in Nevada, Biden confused François Mitterrand, the former president of France who died in 1996, with the current president, Emmanuel Macron.
Then, at two separate fundraisers in New York on Wednesday, Biden referred to the late German chancellor Helmut Kohl when he was recounting a story about his interactions with former German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Biden again stumbled at Thursday’s press conference, referring to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the leader of Mexico in response to a reporter’s question about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
The special counsel’s report — and Biden’s stumbles on Thursday night — will give ammunition to critics who have questioned whether the president is fit to serve another term. Should he win re-election, he would be 82 when he is sworn in and 86 when he leaves office.
Donald Trump, 77, the Republican frontrunner to face Biden in November, has called out the issue repeatedly on the campaign trail.
“A man too incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information is certainly unfit for the Oval Office,” Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives said in a statement.
“We disagree with a number of inaccurate and inappropriate comments” in the report, Richard Sauber, special counsel to Biden, said in a statement. “The simple truth is President Biden takes classified information seriously and strives to protect it.”
In a letter at the end of the report, Biden’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer and Sauber said the report’s “treatment” of the president’s memory was not “accurate or appropriate”.
“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events,” the president’s lawyers added. “Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report.”
A first batch of classified material was retrieved by Biden’s lawyers in November 2022 from his office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a Washington think-tank where he occasionally worked before his election to the White House. Other classified files were found in his residences and at the University of Delaware, which houses a collection of papers from his political career.
US attorney-general Merrick Garland in January 2023 appointed Hur to investigate the potential mishandling of government documents. Hur’s 345-page report, which was submitted to Congress on Thursday, found Biden kept classified material, including on military and foreign policy in Afghanistan, after he left his role as Barack Obama’s vice-president.
The report concluded materials “could plausibly” have been transferred by mistake. Altogether, the report said, the evidence did not establish Biden’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — the legal standard for criminal convictions.
After the documents were revealed in January 2023, Republican lawmakers were outraged given criticism from the president and fellow Democrats about Trump’s mishandling of sensitive material.
Trump was indicted on charges brought by a separate special counsel, Jack Smith, for illegally storing classified documents in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Prosecutors said the former president had resisted handing over the material for months and allegedly lied to authorities, unlike Biden.
Trump has pleaded not guilty.
Trump said in a statement that the Hur report proved there was a “two-tiered system of justice”.
“The Biden Documents Case is 100 times different and more severe than mine. I did nothing wrong, and I co-operated far more,” Trump added.