The Worst Day of Biden's Presidency

Classified Docs and the Curse of Pity

It is difficult to imagine a worse day for Joe Biden than yesterday: February 8th, 2024.

There is no version of Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s mishandling of classified documents, which dropped yesterday, more damaging than the one we got. Hur could have recommended prosecution, impeachment, execution for treason, and none of it would have been worse.

Here’s the report. The executive summary is 15 pages: that’s all 99% of people are going to actually read, myself included. Here’s the Washington Post’s takeaway. It’s accurate enough, and the most generous interpretation you’re likely to find in MSM.

Here’s what I got out of it:

The Good

Let’s start with things that aren’t terrible for Biden in this report:

  • The report highlights Biden’s opposition to Obama’s Afghanistan troop surge. He was right about that war, and he was right early. A reminder is always nice.

  • Biden was authorized to keep these classified documents in his home while he was President. This is very different from the Mar-a-Lago common areas where Trump stored his classified documents: a place those documents should never have been stored, at any point.

  • The report points out that Biden cooperated with prosecutors while Trump did not; points for doing the bare minimum I suppose, at least this doesn’t hurt him.

  • There is historical precedent for keeping some of these documents at his home. Ronald Regan kept diaries with classified information after he left office and the DOJ ruled that this was fine.

  • Biden may have kept a lot of these documents by accident. Things get overlooked sometimes. It happens.

The Bad

  • Despite what Biden said in yesterday’s briefing, this material was highly classified. Yes, there are more classified things than Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI), but you need more than a basic security clearance to view the documents stored in Biden’s garage.

  • That classified material spanned his entire political career, which makes the mishandling sound like a pattern and not a one-off

  • Biden shared the classified material with his ghostwriter, as confirmed by audio interviews which the ghostwriter attempted to delete and were later recovered with said ghostwriter’s cooperation. He does not have a security clearance and never has.

  • Some of the things Biden said to his ghostwriter imply that he knew he wasn’t supposed to have the classified documents.

  • As Hur somewhat cattily points out, we know Biden knew the rules surrounding classified documents because he had a lot to say when Trump’s (significantly worse) Mar-a-Lago classified documents case broke.

The Ugly

  • Hur recommends against prosecution, not because Biden is innocent, but because he believes a jury would likely feel too sorry for Biden to convict him.

  • In the course of his interviews with the Special Council, Biden forgot when his term as Vice President began and ended, and when his son Beau died, “even within several years”

“At trial, Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

You can be a lot of things, as a politician. Respected or despised, hated or loved. You can be an authoritarian menace, like Trump, and do quite well. You can even survive people laughing at you, if you play your cards right. Bush Jr made it work. So does Trump.

But no one in any position of authority can survive pity: the thing we feel for the sick and the weak and the helpless. Cousin of contempt, antithesis of pride. Type “pity for the disabled” into Google and you will find an ocean of articles on exactly why that feeling is so toxic for the pitied.

I will give Biden this much: the shockingly reclusive President, who recently turned down the traditional Superbowl interview for the second year in a row, understood that he had to make a public appearance after this devastating report dropped. And so, last night, he stepped to the White House podium to make his case to the American people.

Biden was angry. He offered the same pushback that his special council offered: that the report’s accusations of memory loss were wildly inaccurate and unfair, that it’s entirely normal to not remember events that happened years ago, and that this whole thing is a political hatchet job. Biden was especially angry about the allegation that he could not remember when his son died. “How in the hell dare he raise that,” he demanded, voice full with emotion. He went on to talk about how deeply he has mourned his son, and had to pause for a moment to regain composure before continuing.

In that moment, I felt it: pity for the President. This old man, this grieving father, visibly frail, interrogated on a national stage about his own son’s death. Biden did not seem to interpret the story about forgetting when his son died as aquestion of his fitness to lead, but as a personal attack on his love and grief. It felt cruel to even bring it up, and crueler still to trot him onto this stage to face down a pack of ravenous reporters eager to interrogate him on the state of his memory.

“My memory is so bad I let you speak,” Biden snapped at a Fox News reporter who asked an especially aggressive question after the speech finished; a line many seem to like, I’ve definitely heard worse. “My memory is fine,” he responded to the same question phrased differently. And then he went to leave, which was the sensible thing to do, but a reporter shouted a question about Israel, and Biden abruptly returned to the podium to talk about a subject he had not spent all day preparing for. That lack of preparation showed. His speech was halting. And then he confused Egypt with Mexico.

At some point, Biden’s electability troubles cease to be a messaging problem and become a problem, flat-out. Last week, Biden confused Angela Merkel with Helmut Kohl, leader of Germany from 1992 to 1998, and Emmanuel Macron with President François Mitterrand, leader of France from 1981 to 1995. A day later, he fumbled for the word “Hamas” during a speech. I encourage you to click on that last link; the video is brief. Biden looks beyond exhausted. No wonder he’s skipping interviews and avoiding cameras.

“A sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” He needed one gaffe-free speech, and he couldn’t do it. What are we supposed to do. How can this old man, worn from decades of public service and personal tragedy, really be our last, best hope for democracy?

I don’t want to write any of these things. I don’t get sick joy out of running down the Dems like this, I don’t want any of it to be true. People get angry, sometimes, at journalists generally and me personally for not covering Biden more “fairly,” and there are many reasons to be angry at the media for the way they cover politics, but what are we supposed to do here? Cover up for him? Deliver puff pieces because he’s the last best hope, because he needs our help? Prop up this pitiful old man who can’t speak for himself, can’t go on-camera to make his case directly, because he needs us to do it for him?

If your plan to save democracy rests on transforming the free press into a state propaganda arm, your democracy is already lost. I’m sorry.

I get it. They’re scared. We’re all drowning here, flailing, reaching for something to save us. The press. Undecided voters. The Supreme Court. Nikki Haley maybe, or a last minute swap at the DNC. All hallucination, or too slippery to grasp.

I still plan to vote for Biden for the reason I’ve always planned to vote for Biden: I want to buy time. There are no good options in the present, but things change. Opportunities knock. Sometimes, when you’re drowning, the best thing to do is tread water and hope something floats over that horizon.

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