President Joe Biden forcefully — and at times angrily — sought to combat suggestions his acuity was declining in a hastily-arranged press conference Thursday night.
But the 81-year-old leader may have made his biggest election-year liability worse.
The president summoned reporters at the White House to insist that his memory was “fine” and emphasize he was insulted by the portrait of an “elderly man with a poor memory” painted by a former US attorney appointed by Donald Trump — his likely 2024 opponent — in an investigation into his handling of classified documents.
Yet a press conference that saw the president express righteous anger over the invoking of his son’s death and offer a comprehensive overlook at the conflict in the Middle East was undercut by another high-profile gaffe involving a foreign leader.
Toward the end of his remarks, Biden mistakenly referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the leader of Mexico. The misstep threatened to undermine his entire effort, and was immediately seized on by his political opponents as further evidence Biden was unfit to serve.
White House allies expressed anger and frustration, saying the focus on Biden’s late slip merely validated their belief that the news media was driven by spectacle over substance and unfairly held Biden to a higher standard than Trump, who himself has repeatedly fumbled names, dates and facts.
Still, the irony of Biden’s gaffe seemed to eliminate any hope of reversing the drumbeat of concern over his age and ability that had grown over the week, after repeatedly confusing the names of European leaders on the campaign trail and declining the opportunity to sit for a traditional pregame interview before the Super Bowl.
That alarm reached new heights on Thursday afternoon, when a scathing Justice Department report on his handling of classified material cited the president’s “diminished faculties and faulty memory” even as it concluded criminal charges were not warranted.
To watch the full Biden press conference click here.
Biden rejected the characterization presented in Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report.
“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,” Biden told reporters in the Diplomatic Room.
The president also disputed conclusions within the report, including that he disclosed classified information to his ghostwriter. He said a memo on Afghanistan he wrote to President Barack Obama that he shared should have been considered “private” and not classified. Biden also said any assertion he willfully kept classified material was “plain wrong.”
“The fact is, they made a firm conclusion: I did not break the law. Period,” Biden said.
The president showed he was particularly hurt by Hur’s claim that he could not remember the date when his son, Beau Biden, died from brain cancer, saying it was immaterial to the investigation.
“How in the hell dare he raise that. Frankly when I was asked the question I thought to myself, it wasn’t any of their damn business,” Biden said. “I don’t need anyone to remind me of when he passed away.”
The report by the Justice Department said investigators working for Hur found Biden had knowingly stored and disclosed classified information that was kept at his homes in Virginia and Delaware, but stopped short of charging him with any crimes.
The most jarring disclosures in the report, though, were descriptions of the president, as an “elderly man with a poor memory,” who struggled on occasions to remember basic facts. Biden was described as also forgetting when his term as vice president ended and details of critical foreign policy debates during the Obama administration.
“My memory is fine,” Biden said. “I’m the most qualified person in this country to be President of the United States and finish the job I started.”
Biden defended himself by saying he had cooperated with the special counsel’s “exhaustive investigation” even as he juggled the demands of his office. The president said he sat for a five-hour interview with Hur, which took place a day after the Oct. 7 Hamas assault on Israel.
Voters have said Biden’s age ranks as one of their biggest concerns as he heads into a likely rematch with Trump in November.
Trump, the Republican frontrunner, is facing criminal charges in four separate cases, including one alleging he kept classified material from his time in the White House and then tried to block the federal government from recovering it. Biden drew a distinction between his cooperation with investigators and Trump’s conduct.
“It wasn’t out like in Mar-a-Lago, in a public place,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s Florida estate where documents were found.
Trump’s campaign seized on the special counsel report Thursday.
“If you’re too senile to stand trial, then you’re too senile to be president,” Alex Pfeiffer, communications director for Trump’s political action committee, said in a statement.