White House fires back at special counsel report, Harris calls descriptions 'politically motivated'

Special counsel Robert Hur called Biden "an elderly man with a poor memory."

February 9, 2024, 5:07 PM

Less than 24 hours after the release of a harsh report from special counsel Robert Hur that concluded President Joe Biden would not face charges over his handling of classified documents but cast doubt on his mental fitness, the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris fired back on Friday.

President Biden, who lashed out at Hur's comments about his memory when it came to his son Beau's death in his own news conference on Thursday night, didn't take additional questions when he met Friday afternoon with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office.

But Harris and the White House stepped in to criticize what they called the special counsel's "gratuitous" statements, taking issue not only with Hur's description of Biden's mental acuity but also some of his critical findings that Biden willfully retained and shared classified information.

Harris told ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Selina Wang that, as a former prosecutor, she believed the depictions of Biden included in the report were "inaccurate and inappropriate."

"The way that the president's demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly, politically motivated, gratuitous," Harris said.

Hitting Hur even harder, Harris continued, "When it comes to the role and responsibility of a prosecutor in a situation like that, we should expect that there will be a higher level of integrity than what we saw."

ABC News' Selina Wang asks Vice President Kamala Harris a question at a gun safety event at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9, 2024.
Pool via ABC News

At the daily press briefing Friday, White House Counsel's Office spokesman Ian Sams said he found Harris' remarks "very powerful" as he suggested Hur may have felt political pressure to criticize the president.

"There's an environment that we are in that generates a ton of pressure because you have congressional Republicans, other Republicans attacking prosecutors that they don't like. And it creates, you know, a need -- if you're going to determine that charges weren't filed, people are human and they're thinking through, you know, what do we need to do? And it leaves one to wonder exactly why he included a lot of the criticisms that were in there."

The Justice Department has, so far, declined to comment on the White House statements.

Hur, a Trump appointee tasked by Attorney General Merrick Garland with investigating Biden's handling of classified documents after he left the vice presidency, ultimately concluded that no criminal charges were warranted.

However, the report said investigators "uncovered evidence that President Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified information after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen" though the evidence didn't establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

And most politically damaging, it included many unflattering characterizations of Biden's mental acuity. Hur said one concern about a possible prosecution would be the jury's perception that Biden is "a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

President Joe Biden answers questions in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 8, 2024.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It also described Biden's memory as "significantly limited." On example it gave was that Biden didn't remember the years when his vice presidency began or ended or the year his son Beau died.

That last statement appeared to anger Biden the most as he told reporters, choking back emotion, "How in the hell dare he raise that?"

Biden also insisted he never shared classified information with his ghostwriter, among other details included in the report.

White House insists Biden didn't willfully retain or share classified material

The White House on Friday defended the president's handling of the material, arguing the report itself lays out "example after example" of how the president did not willfully take classified documents or share them.

The report specifically states: "Our investigation uncovered evidence that President Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified materials after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen" including "(1) marked classified documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan, and (2) notebooks containing Mr. Biden's handwritten entries about issues of national security and foreign policy implicating sensitive intelligence sources and methods."

Sams, however, pointed to other parts of the report that stated "there is a shortage of evidence" on whether Biden purposefully put the Afghanistan documents in a box found at his home and knew they were there; and one section that states the evidence "does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Biden willfully retained the notebooks."

Spokesman for the White House Counsel's Office Ian Sams speak during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 9, 2024.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

On the special counsel's finding that the president shared classified information in the notebooks with his ghostwriter, Sams noted no classified information was published in the president's book.

He also sought to downplay the report's finding that Biden read aloud verbatim from the notebooks to the writer, describing some of those instances as Biden reading from his "personal diary" and that he warned the writer some material might be sensitive.

"I think it's lost in the shuffle of all this, that the president did what all of his predecessors had done, which was take notes for himself, to keep a diary of his own daily life, so that he could think back on these big moments of the time," Sams said.

-ABC News' Mary Bruce, Justin Fishel and Justin Gomez contributed to this report.