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5 Takeaways From Hur’s Testimony About the Biden Classified Documents Inquiry

by Marko Florentino
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Robert K. Hur, the former special counsel who investigated President Biden’s possession of classified documents after he left the vice presidency, testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Republicans grilled Mr. Hur about his conclusion that the evidence was insufficient to charge Mr. Biden with a crime. Democrats, for their part, attacked him for disparaging remarks in his report about Mr. Biden’s mental acuity — including calling him a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties in advancing age.”

Here are five takeaways:

Members of both parties were unhappy with aspects of Mr. Hur’s report. Republicans were upset that Mr. Biden was not charged with a crime, repeatedly noting the criminal indictment against former President Donald J. Trump that accuses him of willfully retaining sensitive national security documents. Democrats accused Mr. Hur of smearing Mr. Biden’s mental acuity, saying it violated Justice Department policies.

At times the comments grew harsh.

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, accused Mr. Hur of deliberately providing fodder to “play into the Republicans’ narrative that the president is unfit for office because he is senile.” That casting was false, he said, pointing to Mr. Biden’s energetic delivery of the State of the Union address.

Getting Mr. Hur, a former Trump political appointee, to acknowledge that he is a registered Republican, Mr. Johnson accused him of “doing everything you can do to get President Trump re-elected so that you can get appointed as a federal judge or perhaps to another position in the Department of Justice.”

Mr. Hur countered that he had “no such aspirations.” He insisted, “Partisan politics had no place whatsoever in my work, it had no place in the investigative steps that I took, it had no place in the decision that I made, and it had no place in a single word of my report.”

On the other side of the aisle, Representative Tom Tiffany, Republican of Wisconsin, accused Mr. Hur of protecting Mr. Biden as part of what he portrayed as a politicized double standard by the Justice Department in whom it charges with crimes.

“I want to thank you for the work you did as far as you could, but unfortunately, you are part of the Praetorian Guard that guards the swamp out here in Washington, D.C., protecting the elites — and Joe Biden is part of that company of the elites,” Mr. Tiffany said.

The hearing rarely focused on gaps in the evidence Mr. Hur gathered apart from Mr. Biden’s mental state. Instead, Republicans sought to portray Mr. Biden as a criminal who has escaped charges solely because he is, in the words of Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, a “senile cooperator” and “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.”

Mr. Hur, who has been under fire for including what some have described as disparaging comments about Mr. Biden’s memory, had an incentive to focus on how Mr. Biden’s mental state might come across to a jury as relevant and proper to discuss.

Democrats often focused on how Mr. Trump’s retention of classified documents was worse; Mr. Trump was criminally charged. That included contrasting Mr. Biden’s cooperation with Mr. Trump’s attempts to obstruct efforts to retrieve files he was keeping at his Florida club and residence, Mar-a-Lago. And on several occasions, they played video clips of Mr. Trump misremembering things or speaking in garbled fashion.

There was less discussion of why the facts Mr. Hur found fell short of proof that Mr. Biden knew he had any particular classified document, regardless of his memory.

Still, at several points, Democrats like Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Representative Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania induced Mr. Hur to agree that his report also included lines like, “In addition to this shortage of evidence, there are other innocent explanations for the documents that we cannot refute.”

Moments after Mr. Hur’s report became public last month, Mr. Biden’s allies quickly sought to characterize it as an exoneration of the president. By their telling, the fact that Mr. Hur failed to find evidence sufficient to charge the president with a crime meant Mr. Biden was innocent.

But Mr. Hur did find some evidence consistent that Mr. Biden had willfully retained classified documents — even though he also concluded that the available facts fell short of proof. Against that backdrop, five words during a back-and-forth with Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, may complicate Democrats’ message as the 2024 campaign moves forward.

After asserting that Mr. Hur exonerated the president, Ms. Jayapal tried to move on with her comments. But Mr. Hur interjected, saying, “I did not ‘exonerate’ him — that word does not appear in the report.” He repeated that several more times, under questioning from members of both parties.

The discussion offered an echo of an ambiguous and much-scrutinized line in the 2019 report by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Unlike Mr. Hur, Mr. Mueller made no decision on whether Mr. Trump should be charged with a crime, only writing, “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” of obstruction of justice.

Throughout the hearing Mr. Hur generally sat stone-faced and — except when defending himself personally — rarely raised objections to members of Congress as they questioned him, even when their assertions contradicted what he said or wrote.

For example, as Republicans like Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey used their time to portray Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Trump’s improper possession of classified documents as equivalent, Mr. Hur did not speak up and repeat what he wrote in his report: that there are “several material distinctions” between the two cases, and the allegations against Mr. Trump “present serious aggravating facts” not present in Mr. Biden’s situation.

And late in the hearing, Mr. Hur did not respond when a Democratic congresswoman, Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, declared that “you were able to fully and totally exonerate him of any criminal wrongdoing.”

Some of the most intense exchanges focused on the president’s age and cognitive abilities, and they are likely to reverberate during the next eight months of the 2024 presidential campaign as Mr. Biden faces a rematch with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden, who at 81 is already the oldest person elected president, has been dogged for months by concerns about his age among voters from both parties. He and his allies have rejected those concerns, but Mr. Hur’s report described memory problems during a five-hour interview.

On Tuesday, Republicans repeatedly sought to draw Mr. Hur into exchanges about the president’s state of mind, but he refused to go further than the words in his report. And Democrats angrily challenged Mr. Hur’s assertion that he was not being political: “You were not born yesterday,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California. “You understood exactly what you were doing. It was a choice.”

Inside the West Wing, the political damage has already been done by Mr. Hur’s report. And Tuesday’s hearing may do little other than amplify it — a reality that Republicans were clearly aware of when they invited him to testify.

For the president’s adversaries, Mr. Hur’s denial that he exonerated Mr. Biden may also be political gold. It’s not hard to imagine that the moment will appear in political television ads supporting Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Democrats will try to focus on Mr. Hur’s conclusion that no charges should be filed, and to draw a sharp contrast between the charges that were filed against Mr. Trump for his own handling of the handing of classified documents after he left the White House in 2021.

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