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The fallout from Hur’s report

It’s now open season on Joseph Robinette Biden. It took an official report to the Attorney General, on a Department of Justice headed notepaper, for the US media to scream the quiet part out loud:

President Biden is old and forgets things.

It’s not that this was a secret, it’s been plainly obvious ever since he assumed office.

But it’s been skated over by most media outlets: one of those things that’s a bit rude or impolite to talk about, or maybe something we don’t know how to talk about, or when.

All that’s out the window now. Ever since the publication of Special Prosecutor Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s mishandling of classified documents on Thursday afternoon, the political media has talked of little else.

And it’s going to continue. And it’s going to get ugly.

Every stumble, every gaffe, every verbal mis-step, every picture of the President looking confused, or falling over. All are going to be deployed in a huge campaign against him and that’s before we get to the digital fakes that are sure to come in this election year.

No need for Donald Trump to join the fray: he had been leading this line of attack for at least two years, ever since he started easing his way back into contention for the republican nomination.

A core part of his single transferable speech is his attack on Biden’s mental competence. There is hardly a speech or media doorstep that goes by without him referring to Biden being “unable to string two words together, or find his way offstage”.

Trump’s campaign schtick proves that constant repetition pays off: most normal people only listen to one political speech in an election cycle.

Donald Trump has previously attacked Joe Biden’s mental competence

Professional listeners become jaded, but for the general public, the one transgressive dart of “truth” thrown at the President of the United States lodges in the memory. Multiply it hundreds of thousands of times for everyone who listens in just once, who then tells their friends and family and it becomes part of the received wisdom of a large block of voters.

The theme was picked up by Trump supporting media.

Sean Hannity, Fox News 9 pm anchor and a good friend of Trump (credited with getting him back on the network after owner Rupert Murdoch turned against Trump) has similarly been railing against the alleged mental frailty of Joe Biden.

The phrase “cognitive decline” spread from the Hannity show to become a staple of Biden-critical media over the past 18 months.

It’s also become a talking point in the wider population. Biden is the oldest US President ever, and his performance in this unique role was always going to be watched closely.

Most people didn’t need cable TV to tell them what to think. They came to their own conclusion. Being President of the United States is one of the most demanding jobs on the planet, one that exacts a toll on even the fittest, freshest middle aged person.

Apart from Biden, Trump and Reagan, all other US Presidents have been in their fifties and sixties doing the job.

It’s just a fact that Biden is considerably older than the average US President. He has proven he can do the job (and was determined to point that out in his news conference on Thursday night).

The big question has long been, can he do the job for a second term? He is, after all, asking the voters to keep him in power until he is 85. Age – and all that goes with it – is an issue in this election.

That issue has been tracked by opinion polls, most recently an NBC tracking poll (conducted by a republican and a democratic polling consultants). Starting last September, the poll asked a sample of voters about Biden and Trump’s mental and physical capacity to serve a second term.

The numbers have hardly budged between last September, and last Tuesday, when the latest numbers dropped (that is, two days before the Hur report). It found that 76% of voters are concerned about 81 year old Biden’s mental and physical abilities, compared to 44% who have concerns about Trump (aged 77).

62% reported having major concerns about Biden’s capacity, 34% had major concerns about Trump’s capacity. By party affiliation, 95% of republicans, 81% of Independents and 54% of democrats have concerns about Biden’s physical and mental health.

This compares to 61% of all voters who have concerns about Trump’s 91 felony charges.

Joe Biden mixed up the presidents of Egypt and Mexico after defending his mental capability

Clearly Biden’s age and mental fitness, real or perceived, is a problem for him and the Democratic Party.

So the ground had been well prepared, seeded and irrigated when Special Counsel Hur dropped what the White House regards as a large steaming pile of fertiliser on it on Thursday afternoon.

The outrage sprouted instantly, starting in the Diplomatic Reception room in the White House, where Biden gave a rare, and hastily organised, press conference on Thursday night. Intended to address the fallout from Hur’s report quickly, it descended into a shouting match between reporters and the President.

Then, in answering a separate question about Gaza, he confused Mexico with Egypt. This was immediately seized upon by TV news panels as further evidence of the very thing the Special Prosecutor had just pointed out.

However, maybe it’s just a function of talking: the more you talk, the more likely you are to make a slip. As if to prove that point, Jesse Watters, a 45 year old Fox News presenter was piling on the outrage about Biden’s cognitive decline, citing the freshly minted Mexico/Egypt example and called in as a Guest Kirsti Noem, the Governor of South Carolina. Except she is the Governor of South Dakota. It can happen to any of us.

But just as Trump’s very personal campaign against Biden appears to have borne fruit, the same tactics are being used against him. Last December the anti-Trump Republican Party group the Lincoln Project started its own campaign to highlight Trumps verbal slips, gaffes and “cognitive decline”.

The former president speaks at a lot of rallies and events, so there is plenty of videotape to draw on. Plenty of social media memes have been bandied about, claiming the 77 year old is undergoing his own decline.

White House Counsel’s Office Spokesperson Ian Sams said Hur’s comments were gratuitous

Don’t be surprised if this line of attack becomes more frequent as the political discourse becomes more fixated on the mental and physical fitness for office of the two leading candidates.

It’s also why Nikki Haley, still plugging away in the South Carolina primary contest, continues to cite the poll finding that 70% of Americans do not want a rerun of Trump v Biden in November.

The polls say they want a younger President. As things stand, they are not going to get one. Which means the questions about physical and mental capacity to serve are not going to go away, for either candidate.

As for Special counsel Robert Hur, there are two views on his inclusion of his views on Biden’s memory in his report. That report, lest we forget, was on his decision not to prosecute the president for mishandling classified documents (former vice President Mike Pence was also investigated for the same thing, but got a much shorter note stating the DoJ would not prosecute him).

The toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube

Defenders of the President immediately denounced Hur’s move as political, claiming the one-time Trump appointee and republican could not find anything criminal to try Biden on, so he threw out a political charge with the phrase that Biden would present to a jury as a well meaning elderly man with a memory problem.

However some former DoJ prosecutors and their friends have taken another view. They say the Special Prosecutor legislation is different to ordinary DoJ investigators because it compels a Special Prosecutor to write a report on their findings, not simply state a decision to prosecute or not prosecute.

In making a report on a decision about not prosecuting the President of the United States, they say Hur would have had to write a comprehensive report, which would include his assessment of witnesses to be called, and whether they would stand up in court. Seen in that context Hur’s candid assessment of how Biden would come across to a jury appears less political in intent.

Nevertheless, the spokesman for the White House counsel’s office (yes, White House lawyers have their own spokesperson) Ian Sams came into the press room on yesterday evening to hammer home the official view that Hur’s comments had been “gratuitous” and went against DoJ practice.

They also distracted from the central theme of Hur’s report, which was that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Biden with any criminal charge in relation to classified documents.

Sams said: “In this case there was a 15 month investigation. The Special Counsel interviewed 150 witnesses. He sought and obtained 7 million pages of documents, down to emails about moving trucks during the transition in 2016 and 2017.

“He spent more than three and a half million taxpayer dollars exploring every possible theory that he could. And what was the result? He reached the inevitable conclusion based on the facts and the evidence that there was no case here.”

Hur’s report closed down one line of attack against Biden, the classified documents. Trump is due in court on criminal charges over classified documents found in his Florida home, Mar a Largo, in May. Biden and his defenders say Biden cooperated fully with the investigation, whereas Trump did not cooperate and that’s why only one of them is going to court.

But Hur has opened the door to a much bigger political problem for Biden, widespread discussion of his mental and physical capacities and his ability to complete a second term. It has granted a licence to all parts of the media to talk about an issue it has largely tiptoed around.

The toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube and there is no getting it back in.

Trump will go on the attack again, this time with a special Counsel’s report to back him up (and fan his own sense of grievance). Biden and his supporters will probably decide that attack is their best form of defence. Trump’s own mental state and capacity will be called into question.

That’s why this Presidential campaign is going to get a whole lot uglier. It’s personal, not business.

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