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A US Department of Justice report on Thursday cast Joe Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” in a damaging portrayal of the president even as he was spared from criminal charges following a months-long probe.

The report from special counsel Robert Hur, who oversaw the DoJ’s investigation into Biden’s handling of classified materials found at his private residences and offices, concluded that Biden, 81, had “wilfully retained and disclosed” sensitive documents but would not face criminal charges as a result.

While the report said Biden would not face a potentially embarrassing criminal case, it said the president’s “memory was significantly limited” during interviews with Hur’s office in 2023, as well as with a ghostwriter working on his memoir in 2017. The president is facing concerns about his advanced age as he tries to convince voters to give him another four years in the White House.

The report said that in interviews with the special counsel’s office the president “did not remember when he was vice-president” and could not remember, “even within several years”, when his son, Beau Biden, died.

Coupled with Biden’s “co-operation”, jurors in a potential trial could be easily convinced “he made an innocent mistake” and did not intend to break the law, the report said.

Biden would likely come off to jurors “as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, the report added. “It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him — by then a former president well into his eighties — of a serious felony that requires a mental state of wilfulness.”

The special counsel’s report comes after several embarrassing public gaffes for the president in recent days. Speaking last weekend at an event in Nevada, Biden confused François Mitterrand, the former president of France who died in 1996, with the current president, Emmanuel Macron.

A picture in the special counsel’s report shows a box containing documents about Afghanistan and a storage closet with documents from his Senate career in a garage of Biden’s private residence in Delaware
A picture in the special counsel’s report shows a box containing documents about Afghanistan and a storage closet with documents from his Senate career in a garage of Biden’s private residence in Delaware

Then, at two separate fundraisers in New York on Wednesday, Biden referred to the late German chancellor Helmut Kohl when he was recounting a story about his interactions with former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The report will give ballast to Biden’s critics who have questioned whether he is fit to serve another term — should he win re-election, he would be 82 when he is sworn in, and 86 when he leaves office. Donald Trump, 77, the Republican frontrunner to face Biden in November, has called out the issue repeatedly on the campaign trail.

“A man too incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information is certainly unfit for the Oval Office,” Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives said in a statement.

Biden has rejected those concerns. He said in a statement he was pleased no charges were filed and that he “co-operated completely” in the probe. In an effort to be collaborative, the president added, he completed five hours of interviews in the two days after Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, while “handling an international crisis”.

“We disagree with a number of inaccurate and inappropriate comments” in the report, Richard Sauber, special counsel to Biden, said in a statement. “The simple truth is President Biden takes classified information seriously and strives to protect it.”

In a letter at the end of the report, Biden’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer and Sauber said the report’s “treatment” of the president’s memory was not “accurate or appropriate”.

“The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events,” the president’s lawyers added. “Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report.”

Senate documents inside a garagae storage closet, as pictured in the special counsel’s report
Senate documents found inside a garage storage closet, as pictured in the special counsel’s report

A first batch of classified material was retrieved by Biden’s lawyers in November 2022 from his private office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a Washington think-tank where he occasionally worked before his election to the White House. Other classified files were found in his residences and at the University of Delaware.

US attorney-general Merrick Garland in January 2023 appointed Hur to investigate the potential mishandling of government documents that were found in Biden’s residential garage in Delaware and his former private office in Washington. The 345-page report was submitted to Congress on Thursday, the DoJ said.

It found Biden kept and revealed classified material, including on military and foreign policy in Afghanistan, after he left his role as Barack Obama’s vice-president. There were also notebooks containing his notes on national security matters and “sensitive intelligence sources and methods”, the report found.

The report concluded he did not “wilfully” keep other classified material, which “could plausibly” have been transferred to locations including the University of Delaware by mistake.

After the documents were first revealed in January 2023, Republican lawmakers were outraged given criticism from the president and his fellow Democrats about Trump’s mishandling of sensitive material.

Trump was indicted by a separate DoJ special counsel, Jack Smith, on charges of illegally storing classified documents in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Prosecutors said the former president had resisted handing over the material for months and allegedly lied to authorities, unlike Biden.

Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Trump said in a statement that the Hur report proved there was a “two-tiered system of justice”.

“The Biden Documents Case is 100 times different and more severe than mine. I did nothing wrong, and I co-operated far more,” Trump added.

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