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Special counsel Hur defended Biden classified documents probe before Congress

Special counsel Robert Hur testifies alongside a video of President Biden to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Special counsel Robert Hur testifies alongside a video of President Biden to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Updated March 12, 2024 at 4:01 PM ET

Former special counsel Robert Hur defended his report and investigation into President Biden's handling of classified documents in a congressional hearing on the probe.

Hur spent more than four hours on Tuesday speaking to members of the House Judiciary Committee. It was his first public comments about his investigation that resulted in no charges against Biden but set off a political firestorm about the president's age and mental fitness.

"My assessment in the report about the relevance of the President's memory was necessary and accurate and fair," Hur said in his opening statement. "Most importantly, what I wrote is what I believe the evidence shows and what I expect jurors would perceive and believe."

In the nearly 350-page report released last month, Hur said charges were not warranted against Biden for his alleged mishandling of classified materials after he left the vice presidency. But that decision was overshadowed by Hur's description of Biden as a "sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

That portrayal fed into an already public debate about President Biden's age and fitness for a second term. It also sparked fury at the White House and among Democrats on Capitol Hill, who called Hur's remarks gratuitous, prejudicial and inappropriate.

Biden even held a hastily arranged news conference after the report's release to defend his record and his fitness for office.

Republicans started the hearing by replaying the press event, repeating and emphasizing the description of Biden to raise questions about the president's mental acuity.

In his opening statement, Hur sought to head off criticism from both sides of the aisle, but particularly accusations from Democrats that he used prejudicial language about Biden's memory to hurt his presidency.

"I did not sanitize my explanation, nor did I disparage the president unfairly," he said. "I explained to the attorney general my decision and the reasons for it. That's what I was required to do."

Hur said the need to fully explain his decisions was particularly important in a case of this magnitude.

"The attorney general had appointed me to investigate the actions of the attorney general's boss, the sitting president of the United States," he said. "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."

White House pushes back

The White House has moved aggressively to push back on the characterizations of Biden's memory in the report.

Before Hur even spoke, the White House quickly refuted parts of his opening statement, citing references from three pages of his report that contradicted his statement that Biden willfully retained materials.

The White House specifically cited passages in the report that seem to contradict Hur. The citations include Page 12: "The evidence suggests that Mr. Biden did not willfully retain these documents and that they could plausibly have been brought to these locations by mistake," Page 177: "We cannot prove that Mr. Biden retained these classified documents willfully," and Page 206: "Mr. Biden did not intend to retain any marked classified documents."

Biden sat down for an interview with Hur over two days — Oct. 8 and 9 — as the president was dealing with the fallout from Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

NPR obtained a copy of the transcript of Biden's interview with Hur.

A review of the document found that during more than five hours of interviews over two days last October, Biden cracked jokes, went into great detail about the design of his Wilmington home and spoke with confidence about world events from more than a decade ago. At times, he was defiant.

He also said some combination of "I don't know," "I don't recall," "I don't specifically remember," "I have no goddamn idea" and similar phrases more than 100 times during the deposition.

The 258-page transcript of the interviews paints a more nuanced portrait of the president than was described in Hur's report last month.

The transcript shows moments where Biden felt around trying to remember the year of certain events, like Donald Trump winning the election in 2016, and the death of his beloved son Beau. Biden recalled the day, May 30, but not the year. The timelines for questions in the interview bounced around.

Two significantly different investigations into classified documents

Trump is facing a separate investigation, led by special counsel Jack Smith, into his own alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the presidency. Trump was indicted on more than three dozen federal criminal charges after boxes of classified materials were found at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.

Trump and his two co-defendants have pleaded not guilty in the case.

Although the Biden and Trump cases both involve classified materials, there are significant differences between them. In Biden's case, his attorneys promptly returned the records after discovering them. Trump, meanwhile, is accused of willfully keeping the classified documents and then actively trying to obstruct Justice Department efforts to get them back.

In his report, Hur pointed to what he called "several material distinctions" between the two cases.

"Unlike the evidence involving Mr. Biden, the allegations set forth in the indictment of Mr. Trump, if proven, would present serious aggravating facts."

Political impact of the report

Democrats on the committee used Hur's appearance to draw a sharp contrast between Biden and Trump, who look set for a rematch in the 2024 presidential race.

Republicans, meanwhile, played up Hur's depiction of Biden as an elderly gentleman with memory problems.

Hur's appearance comes at a moment when there is growing skepticism among House Republicans about the party's impeachment inquiry into President Biden.

The investigation, led by Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and James Comer, R-Ky., has continued for months without producing any direct evidence that Biden was involved in any of his family's foreign business dealings.

One central figure in the investigation now faces federal charges for allegedly fabricating his claims.

While Hur's appearance isn't related to the central allegations of the impeachment push, his testimony is still likely to be used by the party as a chance to emphasize the lawmakers' concerns over Biden's fitness for office.

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.