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How Biden and his allies are pushing back against a special counsel’s claims about his memory

How Biden and his allies are pushing back against a special counsel’s claims about his memory
FILE - President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Washington. Biden's team hopes it has found an unlikely opportunity to go on offense, and perhaps to unite an anxious Democratic Party, following the release of a special prosecutor's report on Thursday, Feb. 8, that cleared Biden of criminal charges, despite finding evidence that the president willfully retained and shared highly classified information as a private citizen. The counsel made repeated negative references to the 81-year-old president's age and memory that echo broader concerns raised by voters in both parties. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)(AP/Andrew Harnik)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s Democratic allies are launching an aggressive defense against a special counsel’s explosive claims that the 81-year-old president couldn’t remember major milestones in his life, trying to diminish the significance of the prosecutor’s allegations that Biden was too forgetful to be charged for mishandling classified material.

Biden set the angry tone hours after special counsel Robert Hur’s report was released, dismissing the report’s conclusions about his memory and insisting he hadn’t forgotten the year his son Beau died, as Hur claimed. Democrats on Capitol Hill and around the country quickly followed.

“Republicans saying that Biden is old is the least surprising thing in American politics,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said. “It’s all they’ve got.”

Democrats plan to answer the widespread questions about the 81-year-old president’s age and readiness by affirming that Biden is capable of being commander in chief and trying to discredit people who portray him as enfeebled. Key to that strategy is drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump, the heavy Republican front-runner who is himself 77 and has also confused names and facts while also facing four indictments and multiple multimillion-dollar civil judgments.

The signs of support are crucial for Biden as he prepares for what could be a tight election against Trump. Even before the report’s release, fears were mounting that the coalition that helped elect Biden in 2020 was fraying, making it all the more important for Biden to keep as many supporters as possible firmly on his side.

The Biden campaign circulated talking points to allies that were obtained by The Associated Press. The talking points refer to Hur, a U.S. attorney during the Trump administration, as a “MAGA-appointed attorney who doesn’t have a case so he decided to lob personal attacks against the president.” That’s a reference to “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s political movement.

The talking points also stressed that Hur is “a lawyer — not a doctor — so people should take his legal conclusions and ignore his political opinions.”

The White House has also noted Biden cooperated with Hur, who declined to charge him with unlawfully retaining classified documents, while Trump faces an indictment in Florida after the FBI seized records from his Mar-a-Lago residence.

“The way that the president’s demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday. “I will say that when it comes to the role and responsibility of a prosecutor in a situation like that, we should expect that there would be a higher level of integrity than what we saw.”

Indignation spread into South Carolina, where Biden scored a commanding victory in the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary on Feb. 3, which was designed by his campaign to project clear strength. Some saw Biden’s forceful response to the special counsel as a promising sign.

“I truly believe this is bringing the best out in the president. It’s showing that he’s a fighter,” said LaJoia Broughton, a 42-year-old small-business owner in Columbia who voted for Biden in the primary.

Biden aides say they do not expect the president or his campaign to take on the age question more directly. They can’t make Biden any younger, and note that attacks on the president over his age were also persistent four years ago, when Trump labeled him “Sleepy Joe.”

Instead, they intend to draw on the blueprint of the 2020 campaign and argue many voters won’t want a repeat of Trump’s turbulent time in the White House. They also plan to highlight Biden’s accomplishments and an economy that continues to show strength.

“The president has said that age is a fair question on voters’ minds, but if you’re an independent or pursuable voter across this country and you’re worried about your kid facing gun violence while going to school, the prospect a national abortion ban, or the future of our democracy, you may think about the president’s age, but at the end of the day the choice is easy,” said Kate Berner, a former deputy communications director in the Biden White House. “Donald Trump is on the wrong side of all of those issues.”

Some Democrats weren’t so optimistic.

“This is a distraction. When you’re running a presidential campaign, you don’t like distractions,” said Jim Messina, who led former President Barack Obama’s last campaign.

Messina compared the special counsel’s report to the announcement in October 2016 by then- FBI Director James Comey that he was further investigating Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails when she was secretary of state. Comey’s announcement, which came 11 days before the election, has been blamed for helping Trump beat Clinton.

In this case, this week’s report comes more than nine months before Election Day.

“There’s just so much time to get through all this,” Messina said. “Trump has all the trials coming up. I’d be surprised if this was an issue in a month.”

Still, Trump’s allies were emboldened this week.

Beyond celebrating the release of the special counsel’s embarrassing descriptions of Biden, Trump won a new trove of delegates in Nevada’s Thursday caucuses, where he ran unopposed.

“We all already know that Joe Biden is senile. What’s being lost is that Joe Biden is a criminal who put American national security at risk,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote in one of many messages highlighting the new report.

Barry Goodman, a Biden fundraiser from Michigan, said he’s had some donors “take a wait and see approach” about supporting Biden, even before the special counsel’s announcement.

“They wanted to see if someone else would get in or whether Trump would drop out — but no one else is getting in,” Goodman said. “Of everyone I talk to, some are more excited than others.”

Still, Goodman said the report did nothing to shake his support for Biden.

Trav Robertson, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, described the report as an obvious political liability for Biden. But he directed blame squarely at Attorney General Merrick Garland for allowing the report to include comments about the president’s age, memory and cognitive function.

“Merrick Garland not doing his job only allowed a Trump appointee to feed a political narrative to deflect from Trump,” Robertson said, adding, “Donald Trump can’t lift a glass of water to his lips without using both hands because he’s old.”

Indeed, Biden’s allies were eager to highlight a perceived double standard as Biden’s gaffes get far more attention than those of other leading politicians.

Trump repeatedly confused former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Republican rival Nikki Haley in recent weeks. Biden didn’t help himself, of course, by referring to the Egyptian leader as the president of Mexico late Thursday.

“There’s a clear unfairness there that people feel,” Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., a former U.S. attorney, said of the focus on Biden’s gaffes, describing the special counsel’s assessment of Biden’s mental health as “improper,” “inappropriate” and “shameful.”

Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., noted that even House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., also recently confused Iran with Israel.

“Who cares?” Garcia said of the gaffes. “The president is going to win. I’m very confident in that. Most importantly, he’s going to be running against a 91-time indicted criminal.”

___

Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Ayanna Alexander contributed to this report.

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