• Washington Post

‘Hair on Fire’: Democratic Worries Grow over Biden Memory Claims

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn at the White House on Friday.

President Biden arrived in the Diplomatic Reception Room on Thursday evening aiming to demonstrate that what the special prosecutor had written about him in a report released earlier that day – that Biden was a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” – was false.

He was in command. He remembered. He was a president worth reelecting.

“I am well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” declared Biden, who was, by turns, feisty, funny and sharp. “I’ve been president. I put this country back on its feet.”

But in a news conference designed, in part, to reassure the nation about the 81-year-old president’s fitness for office, the scene in the ornate but cramped room quickly became unruly.

Biden found himself interrupted by shouting reporters, all competing for airtime. He repeatedly mischaracterized the findings of the special counsel report released several hours earlier about his careless handling of classified documents. He referred to President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi of Egypt but misstated the country he represents – prompting another round of Democratic agita that Biden is too old.

The spectacle – at times chaotic, at times emotional – echoed around the country among the networks of Democratic donors and strategists who have been struggling for weeks to contain their concern about the state and direction of Biden’s campaign.

The broad conclusion, both inside and outside Biden’s inner circle, was that a dangerous and misleading caricature of the president’s performance was at risk of setting in, pushed by the biting prose of a special prosecutor they suspected of seeking political revenge.

“What angers you the most is when something is the opposite of the truth,” White House senior adviser Gene Sperling said. “Of the three presidents I have worked for, no one more meticulously goes over every fact in a speech. No one do you feel like you have to go in with such detailed knowledge of every single thing because you feel like you are going to be quizzed.”

The emotions of Democrats across the country ranged from fear to despondency.

“About as hair on fire as you can imagine,” texted one Democratic operative Friday morning, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “Worse than I even thought it would be.”

The Thursday evening tableau was emblematic of the challenges facing Biden’s reelection bid and the broader concerns roiling the Democratic Party, as many donors, operatives and voters have real concerns about how Biden’s age will impact his electability and privately say they wish he was not the party’s nominee.

The Biden theory of the case hinges on two related corollaries: That in the coming months, the more the public sees of Biden, the more confident they will feel about his leadership – and, conversely, the more the public sees Donald Trump, the better Biden will fare as well.

But the Thursday news conference tested those contentions, underscoring that putting Biden – who has been known as gaffe-prone since his days in the Senate – in public settings will not always accrue to his benefit.

In the past week alone, Biden has repeatedly confused foreign leaders with whom he has met. In back-to-back fundraisers in New York on Wednesday, he misstated which German leader he had met with, saying he spoke with Helmut Kohl rather than Angela Merkel. Kohl left office in 1998 and died in 2017. In Las Vegas on Sunday, he confused the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, with a predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, who died in 1996.

For months, Biden’s top aides have assured donors that when Biden gets out on the campaign trail, when voters realize that Trump is the almost certain Republican nominee and when the economic boom filters into the daily lives of voters, the 2024 race will finally reset.

The White House and the campaign in recent weeks have intentionally reduced the size of the events Biden attends, instead focusing him on meetings with small-business owners, Black families and smaller, kitchen-table discussions. They are working to put Biden back on the road, talking to voters in more intimate settings where he has always been strongest.

But unless polling starts tilting in Biden’s favor, the Democratic Party is rife with second-guessing and self-doubt – a situation made worse by the insular nature of Biden’s orbit and deliberate pace of the Biden campaign build-out.

The concerns were worsened by Biden’s decision days earlier to forgo an interview that presidents traditionally do right before Super Bowl, the most-watched television event of the year. A White House aide said Biden turned down the offer from CBS because they would have taken a brief clip from an interview that would air on their news platform, instead of a traditional extended sit-down.

“So you are behind in a reelection campaign and you have got access to 60 million people or something and you turn it down?” said James Carville, a former strategist for President Bill Clinton. “ … So the question is what can you do? Well, you are pretty limited.”

Biden’s latest troubles started Thursday afternoon, when special counsel Robert K. Hur released his report concluding that criminal charges were not merited for Biden’s handling of classified documents, in part because he was “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Biden aides had long planned to push back on the report, but their response was complicated by the secrecy that the prosecutor’s office required. White House staff had to sign forms restricting how the information about the report could be shared internally, even as lawyers for the president argued about Hur’s conclusions. And the report offered a devastating depiction of an age-addled president – which played into an existing attack line from Republicans and genuine concern from Democrats that Biden is too old to serve another four years.

Biden’s top aides are adamant that the picture painted by Hur of the president’s abilities are fantastical. They describe him as ever-present and deeply involved in the foreign policy, legislative and economic crises that he is facing.

Biden himself was also furious at the report, which he felt was partisan in the liberties it took in describing his competency, and he and his team were particularly incensed about Hur’s claim that Biden did not even know the year his son Beau died.

Lower-level White House staff were also offended and fired up about Hur’s report, which they viewed as petty and dishonest.

Even Trump and some of his advisers – who watched coverage on Fox News of Hur’s report Thursday as he flew across the country – were taken aback at how negative it was, wondering if there was some ulterior motive, one Trump adviser said.

Trump has had challenges remembering names, as well. In New Hampshire, he confused former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – his last remaining Republican primary challenger – with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and also confused the presidents of Hungary and Turkey.

But the chaotic scene in the Diplomatic Room – and Biden’s flubbing of the country represented by Egypt’s president – further played into the very narrative that Biden and his team are desperate to refute: that Biden is an octogenarian showing clear signs of his age.

And while trying to show his factual mastery of the situation, Biden got the facts wrong in several ways. He said “all the” classified records that were in his home were in lockable filing cabinets, despite a photo in the report showing a ripped and open box in the garage that contained a classified document. Biden said “none of it was high classified,” even though the prosecutor said multiple documents were top secret sensitive compartmented information.

“Because of his public appearances and interviews and speeches, people already have the sense that he is what he is – he’s an old man and he’s struggling,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist. “When you already have that sense and then an official government investigator comes along and says, ‘Let me just confirm everything you thought,’ it’s devastating.”

An ABC News-Ipsos poll in January found 28 percent of Americans said Biden has the mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president, while 47 percent said Trump does. A November Marquette Law School poll, meanwhile, found 57 percent of registered voters said the phrase “too old to be president” describes Biden very well while 23 percent said the same for Trump.

The White House continued its pushback effort on Friday, with Vice President Harris and other surrogates condemning the tone and content of the prosecutor’s report, while reaffirming its central finding that Biden should not be charged with a crime and that Trump’s handling of classified documents was different.

“The comments made by that prosecutor [were] gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate,” Harris said Friday.

Democratic strategists have argued that concerns over Biden’s age are already baked into the electoral math, while the flaws of Trump’s candidacy have not yet been fully digested.

Since he inspired the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Trump has stubbornly denied the outcome of the 2020 election; been found liable for sexual assault; been indicted on charges of refusing to return classified documents and attempting to overturn the election; been found liable for financial fraud; and promised a second term in office focused on “retribution” against his enemies.

“You don’t have to outrun the mountain lion. You just have to outrun the other guy,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn a Democratic strategist and high-dollar donor adviser. “Look at Donald Trump. Look at his penchant for insanity. This guy is still who he is.”

Republicans were quick to fan the flames, with the Republican National Committee blasting out a faux-Biden campaign sign with the slogan, a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Democrats quickly retreated into a familiar panicked crouch. By Friday, top Biden donors were fielding calls and text messages from anxious Democrats, asking if other Democrats still had time to jump into the presidential race.

“When is Gavin getting in?” or “How about Whitmer or Shapiro?” buzzed around Democratic circles over the last 24 hours, as Democrats wish cast for Democratic Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan to replace Biden. All three are ardent Biden supporters and have publicly stated they will not challenge him.

Donors have also started investigating how to influence the delegate selection process should Biden drop out of the race.

But most Democrats don’t see another option for their party this year barring a health emergency. They have real concern over Harris leading the ticket, as well as the battle that would ensue if someone else tried to supplant the first Black woman to ever be next in line to the presidency.

“There is a massive wave of deflation right now, but there’s no alternative,” said a Democratic strategist and former staffer to President Barack Obama. “There’s no Plan B, there’s no Plan C, there’s no Plan D. So we are going to fight like h— and eke it out.”

The president’s allies have also tried to reassure donors that Biden remains fit for the job. And as Biden increasingly spends more time fundraising, donors have cited their personal experiences with the president in recent months, telling friends that he is sharp and engaged in those private settings.

“Performance always matters, but the performance that matters for that very tiny slice of swing voters in the five states is between Sept. 1 and Nov. 1,” said Wade Randlett, a California investor and Biden fundraiser. “Right now, it is just get getting made fun of on late-night TV.”