February 10, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden’s righteous anger with an anti-moral press corps

The special counsel’s report didn’t have enough to indict him, only smear him, and reporters are going along with it.

Screenshot via CSPAN.
Screenshot via CSPAN.

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In September, I argued that the Washington press corps is probably the president’s biggest obstacle to getting reelected. My argument felt timely again after a special counsel report concluded this week that Joe Biden did nothing wrong with government secrets found in an old office and in his house. It felt timely again, not because that was the news, but because it wasn’t. 

Instead, the news was about more than 300 pages of commentary by Special Counsel Robert Hur, a Republican, on Biden’s memory. This included, according to Heather Cox Richardson, “assertions that Biden was old, infirm, and losing his marbles and even that he ‘did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.’”

Rather than focusing on the law, as you’d expect from a prosecutor, Hur presented himself as a specialist in cognitive function. And the press corps played along. The AP: “Special counsel says Biden came across to investigators as ‘a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.’” 

Reporters often refuse to come to moral conclusions even when evidence points to one. In this case, the evidence is Hur’s report. It openly editorializes on Biden’s memory, even exonerating him by way of its editorial. 

That might be newsworthy if not for the fact that Hur was, in this particular instance, imagining what Biden’s defense might look like. His report: “We have also considered that, 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.”

That quote got all the attention, but the report explains later on what Hur meant by it. He meant that Biden’s cooperation would “likely convince some jurors that he made an innocent mistake, rather than acting willfully  – that is, with intent to break the law – as the statute requires.” Even though the special counsel did not restrict himself to discussing the law, as you’d expect, but rather delved into commentary about Biden’s memory, the commentary itself was clearly exonerating.

What’s important is recognizing that this is commentary and that the press corps is reporting it as if it were not commentary but neutral fact. Also important is understanding that such commentary is only newsworthy in the sense that it plays into an already established narrative about the president’s age, a narrative that was originated by a rightwing media apparatus bent on assassinating his character and that itself almost certainly influenced Hur’s decision to dabble in what Lindsay Beyerstein called “theatrical speculation about what kind of defense the target might mount and how that might play with a jury.” 

For Biden’s defenders, it’s tempting to minimize the impact of the report, and the press corps’ playing along. USA Today’s Rex Huppke quipped: “The people who like President Joe Biden still like him and the people who hate President Joe Biden still hate him and all the other people were probably tuned out and living their lives today and will decide who to vote for a month or so before the election. The End.”

Would that were entirely true. Unfortunately, sabotage like this has worked before. Former FBI Director James Comey, also a Republican, couldn’t find anything criminal in Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. But that didn’t stop him from editorializing about how irresponsible she was, thus playing into an already established narrative, a narrative that again was originated by the rightwing media apparatus, about how untrustworthy she was. Some have said that tipped the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor.

But there are differences. First, Biden is the president. Clinton wasn’t. As such, he can point to his record of accomplishment. Indeed, during a press conference Thursday, he did just that. In effect, he asked: if my memory is so bad, how did I do everything that I have done so far without any of the anarchy and chaos of the previous presidency? 

Michael Cohen, the MSNBC columnist, not Trump’s former attorney, echoed that: “On Biden’s memory loss, where’s the evidence that he’s screwing up his job? I’m being serious here: is there an argument that Biden is making mistakes? On Israel, immigration, Ukraine, the budget and debt limit? Seems like he’s handled most of these pretty well.”

Another difference is that Biden is angry. More to the point, our society tends to take a man’s anger seriously. (Clinton did not enjoy such benefit of the doubt.) Within hours of the report’s release, he called a presser to rebut its “theatrical speculation.” He responded swiftly, aggressively and angrily, leaving no doubt about his feelings. “There is even reference that I don’t remember when my son died,” Biden said. “How in the hell dare he raise that? When I was asked the question, I thought to myself, it wasn’t any of their damn business.”

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USA Today’s Rex Huppke is right to suggest that, like most things, the question of Biden’s memory will probably fall into partisan camps before it’s forgotten. That would be a best-case scenario. But in order for that to happen, the president had to get in front of it. If he had left it alone, he would have risked allowing it to become a neutral fact, something above politics, thus potentially eroding his standing among people who think of themselves as above politics, that is, swing voters.  

When asked if he can continue being president after being described as a “well-meaning, elderly man,” Biden replied with a perfect mix of humility and righteous anger. “I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man and I know what the hell I’m doing,” he said. “I’m president. I put this country back on its feet. I don’t need his recommendation.”

That Biden was visibly angry at Thursday’s presser was taken by some newspeople as working against him. Because “he looked and sounded pissed off,” Chris Cillizza said, that “affirms how worried he (and they) are about the age and competency issue.” That’s what you can expect from a “savvy pundit” who has lost touch with his sense of morality. 

Sadly, the press corps is often anti-moral. Reporters often refuse to come to moral conclusions even when the evidence points to one. In this case, the evidence is the report itself. It openly editorializes on Biden’s memory, even exonerating him by way of its editorial. Reporters are stopping short of saying that. Instead, they’re playing along.

That would make anyone angry. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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