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Biden's handling of classified material will not result in any charges

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Justice Department issued a report yesterday that said there was evidence that President Biden willfully mishandled old classified documents. But it also said his actions did not warrant criminal charges. The report by special counsel Robert Hur, though, magnified another issue - Biden's mental acuity as he campaigns for a second term in the White House. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So this report was more than 300 pages, with photos showing where some of these documents were found. But that's not what is getting the most attention, right? Tell us what is, Asma.

KHALID: I mean, to be clear, the report does clear the president, as you say, of any criminal wrongdoing.

FADEL: Right.

KHALID: But the special counsel injected questions about the president's mental sharpness into this report. And at one point, it describes the president as a, quote, "sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory." It described the president as having trouble remembering specific timelines and details. The White House said these comments were inappropriate and irrelevant.

FADEL: What is Biden saying?

KHALID: So Biden points out that his situation was in stark contrast to former President Donald Trump, who is facing criminal charges over classified documents. Last evening, Biden held a hastily arranged press conference where he was very angry about suggestions that he had mixed up timelines of when his son died. But, you know, Leila, the reason this report is so damaging to the president is that it cements a perception that a lot of voters already have, that Biden is too old to do the job. And, you know, frankly, it is an issue that the campaign cannot easily quell.

Polls indicate that age is the president's biggest political liability. And it's not just an issue with Republicans, also with some Democrats. And now, because of this report, I think it's an issue that, you know, might have been whispered about before but is now being very much openly discussed publicly. Reporters in the room last night asked very blunt questions, like, is your memory getting worse? The president insisted his memory is fine. And at times last night, Biden seemed very defensive. Here's an exchange with CNN reporter MJ Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MJ LEE: Many American people have been watching, and they have expressed concerns about your age.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That is your judgment. That is your judgment.

LEE: They - this is according to public polling. They express concerns...

BIDEN: That is not the judgment of the press.

FADEL: OK. So Biden's downplaying it there. But as you mentioned, these concerns are very real among voters, including voters NPR has interviewed. So where is this coming from?

KHALID: Well, the president is 81. And the challenge for Biden is that he has repeatedly mixed up people and names. And, you know, it even happened last night when he was responding to a question about Israel in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Initially, the president of Mexico, El-Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in.

KHALID: And Biden there meant to say the president of Egypt. And, you know, Leila, his broader answer was actually rather newsy, but it got overshadowed by this very tangible example of something that does concern people. And this comes on the heels of three other incidents in recent days where the president mixed up current world leaders with their long-dead predecessors. The White House was asked about these incidents, and the press secretary pointed out that lots of people misspeak.

FADEL: Now, I assume Republicans are delighting in this, right?

KHALID: That's right. The RNC quickly issued a statement saying this is proof that Biden can't handle the job. You know, the thing is, though, that his likely opponent in this election, Donald Trump, is 77 and also faces serious questions about his mental sharpness. For example, he recently mixed up his GOP challenger, Nikki Haley, and the former speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.