No Fans Of Hur On The Hill : The NPR Politics Podcast Republicans and Democrats expressed dissatisfaction with special counsel Robert Hur's report about President Biden's handling of classified documents in a congressional hearing on Tuesday. Hur was criticized for describing Biden as an 'elderly man with a poor memory' and his decision ultimately not to prosecute Biden. We walk through the arguments.

This episode: White House correspondents Asma Khalid and Tamara Keith and Justice Correspondent Ryan Lucas.

Our producers are Jeongyoon Han, Casey Morell & Kelli Wessinger. Our editor is Erica Morrison. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

Listen to every episode of the NPR Politics Podcast sponsor-free, unlock access to bonus episodes with more from the NPR Politics team, and support public media when you sign up for The NPR Politics Podcast+ at plus.npr.org/politics.

No Fans Of Hur On The Hill

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ROBERT: Hello. This is Robert (ph), normally from Sierra Madre, Calif. But today, I'm in Cable, Wis., where I just finished the American Birkebeiner Ski Race, the largest cross-country ski race in North America. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:43 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, March 12 of 2024.

ROBERT: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but the 50th annual American Birkebeiner Ski Race is now over.

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RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Having grown up in Wisconsin, I know that that's a big deal.

KHALID: You know it?

LUCAS: Yeah.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Oh, wow. I was like, what is this?

KHALID: Well, congratulations. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KHALID: The special counsel report that put a spotlight on President Biden's age and acuity was put in question today on the Hill. Lawmakers grilled former special counsel Robert Hur for describing Biden as a, quote, "elderly man with a poor memory" and his decision ultimately not to prosecute Biden for his mishandling of classified documents. Today on the show - why Congress is questioning Hur and what impact the report could have on President Biden's reelection campaign.

Ryan, I want to start with you. There's a lot to dive in here. But, you know, at the heart of today's hearing was this allegation from Republicans that Biden and Trump have not received the same fair treatment. That, in essence, Biden and Trump did the same thing. They stored classified documents in their private residences. So I want to start with the facts that the Justice Department laid out specifically as it relates to Trump.

LUCAS: Well, look, on the surface, yes, both of these cases involve the retention of classified documents. That's why there was a special counsel appointed to investigate President Biden and a special counsel appointed to investigate former President Trump. But there are distinctions between these two cases. In the case of former President Trump, he faces more than three dozen criminal counts in a case brought by special counsel Jack Smith for retaining classified documents. He was asked to return those classified documents to the Justice Department, to the National Archives. He refused to do so for months. And the special counsel says that Trump then obstructed justice by trying to get others to destroy evidence and then lied to investigators about it. That's what they say happened in the case of the former president.

KHALID: And remind us what Biden did.

LUCAS: Well, the case against Biden, aides to the president found classified documents at an office of his - a former office of his in Washington, D.C. They then alerted the Justice Department and the National Archives. They cooperated with investigators. They allowed the FBI to conduct a search of his former offices, of his home in Delaware. The president himself sat down for a lengthy interview with Hur. So they returned documents, and they cooperated with investigators. So even Hur said in his report that there are clear distinctions between the case against Trump and the case against President Biden.

KHALID: So remind us, then, why Hur ultimately concluded that the Justice Department should not charge Biden.

LUCAS: So what Hur says in his report is that he found evidence that Biden did willfully retain classified information and may have disclosed some classified information. This is stuff dating back to his time as vice president. But ultimately, what Hur said is that there was not enough evidence to convince a jury of Biden's guilt, of probable cause of Biden's guilt - that the amount of evidence that he was able to collect fell short of that.

And part of that is what ended up getting into his analysis of why he thought this would not be a case that he would be able to convince a jury on. And that's where we ended up getting into his, shall we say, reflections on Biden's memory in his interview with Hur. I mean, this is what caused a lot of the political uproar about Hur's investigation and his conclusions.

KHALID: Ryan, you just mentioned memory. And that takes me to the hearing today because there was this rather notable moment towards the beginning where both Republicans and Democrats aired videos. And Republicans played an edited video of Biden's press conference the day that the Hur report was released, and then later, Democrats played an edited video of Trump. Let's take a listen to parts of both of these videos. First, you'll hear the Biden press conference where he responded to reporters' questions.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now, what was the last part of your question?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Whether a special counsel should have been appointed in this case and in the case of your rival, president - former President Trump.

BIDEN: I think a special counsel should have been appointed. And the reason I think a special counsel should have been appointed is because I did not want to be in a position that they looked at Trump and weren't going to look at me, just like they looked at the vice president. And the fact is, they made a firm conclusion. I did not break the law, period. Thank you all very, very much.

(CROSSTALK)

KHALID: To be clear, Biden was not charged with a crime. However, the special counsel said in the hearing today that he did not exonerate the president. The video went on to show a moment at the end of Biden's press conference.

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BIDEN: The hostage negotiation - look. (Inaudible). I'm of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top. I think that, as you know, initially, the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in. I talked to him. I convinced him to opened the gate.

KHALID: The president misspoke. He meant to say the president of Egypt, El-Sisi, not the president of Mexico. Democrats then went on to play this edited reel of Donald Trump from various events.

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DONALD TRUMP: One of the great memories of all time...

James Webb. I don't remember the names. Don't remember the name.

Viktor Orban - did anyone ever hear of him? He's the leader of Turkey.

By the way, they never report the crowd on January 6. You know, Nikki Haley - Nikki Haley is in charge of security.

Three years lady - ladies - lady - how about that?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Did you actually have a one-on-one with Comey, then?

TRUMP: Not much - not even that I remember.

I like besidos (ph).

We have languages coming into our country - we have nobody that even speaks those languages. They're truly foreign languages. Nobody speaks them.

Saudi Arabia and Russia will (inaudible).

I have a really good memory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Your next wife was a woman by the name of Marla Maples?

TRUMP: That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do you recall what years you were married to Ms. Maples?

TRUMP: Um.

It's called, like, up here, and it's called memory, and it's called other things.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you don't remember saying you have one of the best memories in the world?

TRUMP: I don't remember that.

And Putin, you know, has so little respect for Obama that he's starting to throw around the nuclear word (inaudible). You heard that - nuclear.

We have to win in November, or we're not going to have Pennsylvania. They'll change the name.

I talk to Putin a lot.

KHALID: So there's a lot in there. At the beginning, you heard Donald Trump seemingly praise Viktor Orban, who's the leader of Hungary, as the leader of Turkey. But Tam, I mean, what did you hear both Republicans and Democrats trying to do with these videos? What was their political point?

KEITH: Well, part of what Republicans are trying to do is feed this ongoing perception that, for whatever reason, is a bigger problem with voters for President Biden than it is for former President Trump. And they are pushing out content that confirms the view that many voters already have - that President Biden maybe is too old for another term. And meanwhile, what Democrats are trying to do here is neutralize that. They're saying all this attention has been put on President Biden, but former President Trump messes up names all the time, says all kinds of wild and outlandish things, slurs his words in speeches, and it just isn't getting the same amount of attention. They'd like it to get more.

LUCAS: Democrats certainly have made a point of going after Hur and his characterization in the report of the president's memory, and it's something that Hur is - was clearly conscious of when he was coming up to the Hill to testify today. He addressed it right off. In his opening statement, he said, look, I had to explain my work. I had to explain how I got from point A to point Z. And part of that was explaining why I thought that a jury wouldn't convict the president with the evidence that I had. And part of that got to the issues of memory. He said, I did not sanitize my report, but he also pushed back and said, I did not disparage the president in the comments that he made - something that Democrats - Congressman Adam Schiff of California in particular - pushed back on. But Hur was very even-keeled in his testimony today that we've seen so far and was quite adamant that he was not taking political shots at the president.

KHALID: All right. We'll talk more about Biden's interview with Robert Hur. But first, let's take a break, and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. Tam, I want to talk a bit about those interviews President Biden did with the special counsel, Robert Hur, on October 8 and October 9. There is a 258-page transcript of those interviews. You reviewed them. What did you see?

KEITH: The transcript provides a more nuanced picture of Biden's interview with Hur than came through in the special counsel's report, and it has many moments where the president of the United States has a full grasp on where he is, what's going on and foreign policy decisions that were made 10, 20, 50 years ago. So I think that what I can say is that the White House has been pointing people to articles that have been written about the transcript since that transcript came out.

KHALID: And it's certainly to the benefit of the president and the benefit, I would say, of showing a more, as you say, nuanced depiction of what took place during those interviews.

KEITH: Yeah. And let me just sort of walk you through some of what I read in that transcript. First off, Hur is very grateful to the president, right at the beginning, for coming in and talking to him at the White House, sitting down for these extensive interviews on a weekend where he was dealing with very big, weighty foreign policy challenges. President Biden, when he came in, said, oh, I just got off the phone with Bibi Netanyahu. Throughout the interview, there are times when President Biden cracks jokes. He tells the special counsel's team, you know, you guys know my house better than I do now. And he says, you know, I - thank you for putting everything back in place. Lots of jokes, lots of Biden classic favorite stories going back decades and, then, just, like, the level of minutia of the questions. And...

KHALID: Can you give us an example?

KEITH: Yeah. So Hur and his team are walking Biden through the evidence. And so they are looking at photos of his garage. They're looking at photos of the home he rented in Virginia. They're looking at photos of furniture. And at one point, President Biden says, oh, I remember buying that conference table at a store in Delaware. And then the special counsel asks, oh, well, if you remembered that conference table, do you remember where you got the file cabinet that was also there? And Biden's like, no, I don't. You know, there are - I counted well more than 100 instances of President Biden saying, I don't recall. I don't remember. I have no goddamn idea. At one point, the investigators even asked Biden, well, in this file cabinet, there are hanging files, but they're not actually hanging. Do you know why that might be? And he's like, no - I don't know. Maybe they weren't hung there.

KHALID: When you say that it presents a more nuanced picture, is it that you get a context for why, perhaps, the president did not know the answer to certain things? Because it does seem like he still did have some difficulty in remembering specific dates - for example, I saw in your reporting, around the death of his son.

KEITH: Right. So in Hur's report, he does mention that President Biden doesn't remember the year of his son's death. And that is definitely here in black and white in the transcript. It's a very confusing, convoluted part of the interview where Hur is asking Biden where he stored documents that he was using in his post-vice presidential career, working on the Cancer Moonshot, his book about Beau and other things. And Biden, at one point, asks whether Hur is talking about the 2017-2018 timeframe. Hur says yes. And then Biden starts talking about Beau and the period of time that he was dying of brain cancer. And he seems to be sort of mashing together two periods of time when he was trying to decide whether he was going to run for president - 2015, when Beau was dying of cancer, and then 2017, 2018, once former President Trump had been elected. And he asks, well, what year was it that Beau died? And then he almost immediately says, May 30 - that was the day. But what was the year?

LUCAS: From reading the transcript, Tam, does it seem to you that the characterization in Hur's report - I mean, we get some folksy Bidenisms (ph), it seems, from what you've said of the transcript - does it seem like Hur's characterization is off?

KEITH: I think that you can definitely understand where Hur's characterization comes from, reading this transcript. You can also understand why the White House was very upset - and not just because they thought it was unfair, but also because they thought it didn't reflect the conversation that they saw. Because there are various moments throughout this interview where President Biden is almost correcting the special counsel's questions, where the questions meander - where, at one point, Biden gives this very lengthy description of his home in Wilmington, and Robert Hur says, wow, like, that was very helpful. I have photos, but it doesn't seem like we need them because you have a photographic memory of your house in Wilmington. To have Hur tell the president he has a photographic memory and then to have a report come out that says he's, you know, an old guy with a bad memory, it felt like a disconnect for the White House.

But certainly, there are moments scattered throughout this very long transcript where the dates - the sequences get off a little bit, where Biden is sort of reaching for the year that something happened, though he remembers the events quite clearly. A lot of this is natural things that humans do. Like, I can't tell you the year my grandmother died, but I remember that I went to a football game when she had her stroke, and so it must have been sometime shortly after that. You know, like, that sort of memory rebuilding is something that you see in this transcript. But, yeah, he was fumbling around in the 2017 time frame - around this time of his post-vice presidential career, not - like, when was Trump elected? When did Beau die? There was this whole section. At that point, Robert Hur asks, do you guys want to take a break? And President Biden says, no, I just want to get this done. I want to power through.

KHALID: All right, well, that is a wrap for today's show. I'm going to leave it there. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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