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From New York Times, I'm Michael Waboro. This is The Daily. For months, Democrats have downplayed questions about President Biden's age and his memory. That just got much harder to do. My colleague, Peter Baker, explains. It's Wednesday, February 14th.


Peter, when the Special Council report was released a few days ago and ignited into a national conversation about President Biden's age and memory, Today, all of us here at the Daily thought of you because you've covered Biden for decades now. You've seen him up close as a senator, as vice president, now president. You've watched him age. In your role as chief White House correspondent, you've been examining what it means for Biden to be the oldest President in American history. I just want to start there with your own observations.


Well, yeah, the reality is that Joe Biden has age, and it's hard not to notice. I think over the For the last few years, that aging has been a pronounced process. There's a real change occurring. Not surprising. It's normal for somebody of his age. In many ways, obviously, he's as healthy and vigorous as any 81-year-old you can see. He rides bikes, he exercises. But it's hard not to notice when you watch him up close.


Well, just explain what you mean when you talk about this aging. Like you said, everyone ages, but let's talk about the specifics of Biden aging here.


Well, there's the public presentation, right? What you You see when he shows up in the East Room, for instance, or the podium, you see it in his gate first thing out. He's walking to the podium, and he shuffles now into rooms. He has taken a few falls recently. He once fell on his bike, and that was recorded by cameras, which was embarrassing to him. So that's the visual element. That's what we see. And then there's also the verbal element.


They had to work hard to show patience and be willing to travel over a thousand miles. You could say even this harder than getting a ticket to the Renaissance tour or Brittany's tour. She's down in... It's warm in Brazil right now.


You can hear him in his extemporaneous speaking, sometimes trail off mid-sentence.


40% of all products coming into the United States, America, on the West Coast, go through Los Angeles and What am I doing here? Is it Long Beach? Long Beach. Thank you.


Or struggling to find his way back.


There is some movement, and I don't want to... I don't want to... Well, maybe, choose my words. There's some movement. There's been a response from the... There's been a response.


Again, that's not unusual for somebody of his age, but it comes across more pronounced when you're President of the United States and the cameras are on you so intensely. I think what really stands out for a lot of people, particularly lately, has been his memory. He will confuse people, for instance, mentioning Helmut Kohl when he means Angela Merkel, different chancelors of Germany. Helmut Kohl, of course, been dead for a number of years. Same with France. He confused François Mitterrand, the late President of France, with Emmanuel Macron, the current President of France. In my reporting, even talking with people about private moments with the President, what's striking is administration officials, for instance, who haven't seen him in a while, or former aides who are catching up with him after a number of months. What they'll say is how surprised they are at how much he is aged. They, too, notice it when they haven't seen him for a while, and it's been striking to them. So it's not just even what the reporters are seeing, but the people who are around him.


Peter, I'm curious in your reporting how you're separating what might be superficial about what, for example, these former aides are telling you or what we all see, the President forgetting a foreign leader's name, mistaking it, how you separate potentially a common variety of someone getting old and having a lapse from what's truly worrisome about this as a journalist.


Yeah, that's It's a fair question. And what we've tried to do is do a lot of reporting to distinguish between the two. Between the superficial, does it really matter if he gets the name wrong here or there? And is his judgment affected? Is his ability to process information and make important decisions affected? And that's what really, of course, matters most in a president, a commander in chief, especially at a time when we have so many crises. And so a few months ago, a team of us at the time spent weeks talking to dozens of people around Biden. And what we found is basically Basically, there are these two Bidons co-existing side by side. There's the one who does forget names in places and may trail off in the middle of a thought. But then there's the Biden that behaves the way you would expect a president to act, to really grill his aids on what's going on and make sure he has all the information, in fact, to correct them when he thinks that they're wrong, to make crisp decisions when they are necessary, to make wise decisions in the face of these enormous challenges and crises that a president can face.


And so there's one story, for instance, about the president being on a trip to Asia a number of months back and being woken in the middle of the night to find out that a missile had struck Poland, which, of course, is the NATO ally of America. And this is a real crisis because the fear was that Russia, in its war with Ukraine, had hit a NATO ally, which would have been a massive escalation. Right.


I remember it.


Right. In the middle of the night, he's woken up to deal with this crisis. As his aides describe it, and of course, since his aides were not there, but as they describe it, he does what you want a president to do. He gets in touch with the President of Poland and the NATO Secretary General, and he really leads the world through this crisis. As they discover, fortunately, it would turn out not to be a Russian missile. It was not an intentional escalation, and the crisis was diffused. But that's the two Bidons you're seeing, the one that you don't see as much on TV or in public who is doing the job that the voters want them to do.


The conclusion you and our colleagues seem to have drawn, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that even if Biden's memory and his verbal agility is in any decline, in the moments that matter, the president functions highly. In those moments of functioning highly, most of them are off camera.


Yeah, that's right. Look, in interviewing all these people who have been around him, AIDS, administration officials, allies, congressional officials, even foreign diplomats, nobody has said to me they don't think he can do the job. Nobody said that they think that the issues Is that trouble a lot of Americans about his appearance or his clear aging have affected his capacity to make the decisions that you would want a president to make. Now, what a lot of people do have concerned about, including some people around him, is where this could lead. If he's able to make these decisions in the way he does now, that's one thing. What will it be like a year from now? Or if he wins another election five years from now, he would be 86 at the end of a second term. That's the question I think a lot of voters are going to Right.


So even those around him who are quick to tell you there's no problem with President Biden's ability to function in this job, period, say, but if you're asking us what will it look like in four years in a second term, there's some pause there.


At least among some of them, right? There are a lot of people in the administration who will, in a candid moment, maybe over a glass of wine at night or when they're certainly not on the record, then you would hear from some administration officials anyway, this concern about what things may be like in a year or especially five years. And they understand, just like a lot of Americans do, that a lot can happen between now and then. But at the same time, of course, it's a binary choice. The other candidate here is not exactly a younger generation. That's Donald Trump. He's 77, and he has his own public memory lapses and confusion over issues and names.


Have weaponized law enforcement to arrest their leading political opponent, leading by a lot, including Obama. I'll tell you what, you take a look at Obama and take a look at some of the things that he's done. This is the same thing. The country is very divided. And we did with Obama, we won an election that everyone said couldn't be one?


And all kinds of other things he says that seem to indicate cognitive issues with age.


We have a man who is totally corrupt and the worst President in the history of our country who is cognitively mentally impaired, in no condition to lead, and is now in charge of dealing with Russia and possible nuclear war. Just think of it. We would be in World War II Difference is, of course, that Trump speaks with such bombastic energy that it conveys something different.


And the polls show that while a lot of Americans are also concerned about Trump's age, and he also would be the oldest President in history history if he wins and finishes a four-year term. Not as many voters are quite as concerned as they are with Biden. That the age issue has definitely been more damaging politically for Biden so far than it has been for Trump.


Right. So fairly or unfairly, and I'm sure to those in Biden world, it's unfair, the reality is that the age issue cuts both ways, but it seems to bruise Biden more.




I think it's fair to say that is the complicated backdrop against which the special counsel report is released.


Exactly. Robert Herr was the special counsel appointed by attorney general Merritt Garland to look into why President Biden had kept classified documents from his time as vice president, even going back to his time as Senate. And these documents were found in his office and home in Wilmington, Delaware. That's not where they're supposed to be. And of course, President Trump, since he had already been investigated for something similar, they had to make sure to to look at this in a serious way as well. So Robert Herr was a Republican US attorney appointed by Trump and then picked by Merrick Garland to handle this very delicate case because that way, nobody could say that if he found no issue that he was a partisan Democrat. In fact, he has a pretty non-partisan reputation. And he spent a long time, about a year looking into this, and he decides that there is not a crime here to charge President Biden with, which is obviously a big relief to the President President. But this legal exoneration is unfortunately for Biden a political nightmare. The bombshell in the report is why Robert Hearst says he can't charge the President. One of the reasons he says, is the President's memory is so bad that he couldn't establish Biden's intent to willfully retain the documents or why these documents were stored the way that they were.


Which is an extraordinary claim. I mean, to some, it was inflammatory. How does the special counsel, how does her justify coming to that conclusion that the reason or a big reason he can't charge Biden is because the President's memory is so faulty?


Exactly. Her sits down with President Biden for five hours of interviews over two days. In his report, her takes through these key moments when the president can't seem to remember important moments, or at least remember the specifics of when they For instance, he said he couldn't remember reading out loud his notes to the ghostwriter of one of his books, although obviously he did do that. And in reading those out, read out classified information. He couldn't remember exactly when he was vice president. At one point, he says, If it was 2013, when did I stop being vice president? He was trying to recall, In 2009, am I still a vice president? So he couldn't place the dates correctly, at least not initially. And according to Robert her, even most explosively, President Biden couldn't remember the year that his son, Bo, died, even within several years. I think that, in particular, was a powerful thing for Robert Hur to report. In the end, Hur writes in his report, A jury would not convict him because he seems like a well-meaning elderly man with memory problems.


I think a lot of people who saw that language, Peter, thought It's a very official legal document. Does this special counsel have it in for Joe Biden? I mean, you described him as non-partisan, but this is a very official legal document, and the conclusions and the language that he arrived that are pointed and seemingly embarrassing and in the context of a campaign, pretty damaging. And so the thinking becomes, is there a backstory here we need to understand?


Right. Yeah, that's a fair question. And after all, the special counsel was tasked with looking into mishandling classified documents, not the president's mental acuity. But for Robert Herr, he felt the need to justify his decision not to bring criminal charges. And so the examples needed, I suppose, in his mind to be as revealing and telling as they were in order to explain the conclusion that he made.


Because whatever this issue was before this report was released, Biden, his his age, his memory, all those questions, it was suddenly on steroids. It was suddenly something really hard to not look at and talk about and think about.


Absolutely. This is not a poll. This is not a reporter writing a story. It's not a columnist or a commentator making gratuitous comments. It's not Republicans chopping up his videos and putting them out in a damaging way. This is an official report and is saying that a conclusion about whether or not to charge President of the United States has been based on his ability to remember things or not remember things as the case may be. The line then becomes, well, if he's not fit to be a defendant in a trial, is he fit to be President of the United States? You can imagine how this goes over in the White House. This is infuriating to them. Biden land is absolutely livid. The President is absolutely livid. And so he decides to fight back.


We'll be right back.


Peter, how does President Biden end up fighting back against this special counsel report that turns out to be so embarrassing for him?


Well, On Thursday night, just a few hours after the report comes out, and without any real notice to the White House Press Corp, the President's staff announces that he's going to make a statement.


As you know, the special counsel released this finding today about their look into my handling of classified documents.


At first, he looks like he's taking a victory lap.


I was pleased to see he reached a firm conclusion that no charges should be brought against me in this case.


He's talking about how he has been exonerated, and that is, in fact, still the bottom line of this report.


The special counsel acknowledged I cooperated completely.


He talks about how this exhaustive investigation included very long interviews in moments of intense pressure.


I went forward with a five-hour in-person interview over two days on October the eighth and ninth of last year, even though Israel had just been attacked by Hamas on the seventh, and I was very occupied.


He cited the special counsel's His own statements praising him for his cooperation, which, of course, is in great contrast to former President Trump, who's charged with trying to literally obstruct government officials who are seeking classified documents back.


In addition, I know there's some attention paid to some language and report about my recollection of events.


But then the President goes on the attack.


There's even a reference that I don't remember when my son died. How the hell dare he raise that?


And specifically, Biden mentions the part of the report that says he couldn't remember when his son died. At this point, you see the anger, especially in his face, and he's grinting his teeth almost as he's responding.


Frankly, When I was asked the question, I thought to myself, wasn't any of their damn business.


Right. He's angry, but he's not denying any of her's claims about memory lapses.


No, he's not denying you the very specific things that Herr is saying. He's most upset that it suggests that he doesn't remember his son's death. Of course, he remembers his son's death. That was one of the most scary moments of his life. Robert Herr wasn't saying he didn't remember that. Robert Herr was saying he didn't remember the date. But for President Biden, it was a step too far. It was an inflammatory thing to say.


Their task was to make a decision about whether to move forward with charges in this case. That's their decision to make. That's the council's decision to make. That's his job. And they decided not to move forward. For any commentary, they don't know what they're talking about. It has no place in this report. The bottom line as a matter is now closed. I'm going to continue what I've always focused on, my job of being President of the United States of America. And I Thank you, and I'll take some questions.


Then there's a feisty question and answer session with the White House Press Corp on all these issues.


President Biden, something the special counsel said in his report is that one of the reasons you were not charged is because in his description, you are a well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.


I'm well-meaning, and I'm an elderly man, and I know what the hell I'm doing. I've been President.


Most dramatically, he has his back and forth with a Fox News reporter, Peter Ducey, who asks him, Can you continue?


Put this country back on his feet. I don't need his recommendation. It's totally- How bad is your memory?


And can you continue as President?


My memory is so bad. I let speak.


Biden pushes it back on him, saying, My memory is so bad, I let you speak. I think that was an effective moment for Biden to turn the question back around.


Right. This is almost a very effective moment of political performance until it's not.


Yeah. He's so close.


Thank you all very, very much.


He's walking out the door. He has said what he wants to say, but he hears a question about Gaza And he decides to turn around and come back to the podium and back to the microphone to answer the question. And he gives some actually important news there.


He says, The Conduct Product of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.


That Israel's response in Gaza was over the top. That was much sharper than he has said before. But then he makes a mistake.


The President of Mexico, O'Ceece, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in.


I talked to him. He says the President of Mexico when he means the President of Egypt. It's not that big a deal, obviously, but in this moment, in this particular moment, when people are focused on his memory and his ability to speak correctly, in the end, it distracts from the message he had just delivered about how sharp he was.


Right. Once this news conference is over, it did feel pretty clear that something had changed, right? And that when it comes to this question of his memory, his acuity, this was something of a turning point. The question becomes, how much of a turning point does it matter? Will it go away? I'm curious, does this moment change anything about how the Democratic Party treats Biden at this very important moment when he's the presumed nominee coasting towards becoming the party's candidate for re-election? And does it change how Biden conducts himself as President and as candidate.


Yeah. Let's start with a party. I mean, there are Democrats like David Oxelrod, who, of course, was Obama's top advisor, and he knows Biden well from the time he was vice President, who are saying the age is a real issue and that they need to take it seriously. They have questioned whether it was a great idea to nominate a candidate of this age in a race that's so important from the Democratic point of view to win. But is this a turning point in the conversation? I mean, the thing is, I think prior to this report, the White House had done a pretty good job of tamp down concern in the Democratic Party to the point where they had convinced a lot of people who may have their doubts about him to recognize he was going to be their candidate anyway. So it was time to try to move on past that issue and not focus on it. And then you have this report come out that puts it front and center again and causes a lot more hand wringing inside the party about what they're going to do with a candidate who's 81 years old.


Yes, but at a stage in the Democratic nomination process where it does feel more or less impossible to do anything about it.


Yeah. I mean, the reality is nobody can talk Joe Biden out of running at this point, except maybe his wife, and she's all on board. So he has spent decades trying to become the President of the United States. And then you want to tell him not to run again? No way. He feels, I think, very aggrieved of this idea that he shouldn't run for a second term when he feels like he's done a really good job in the first term so far. And he also feels he is uniquely suited to beat Donald Trump because he's the one guy who did beat Donald Trump in 2020. Right? In fact, other Democrats deferred to him, whether they thought it was a good idea or not. Really, nobody challenged him. I mean, Dean Phillips, a congressman from Minnesota, got in the race and he got clobbered in the New Hampshire primary where Biden wasn't even on the ballot and people wrote him in. There is no plausible scenario at this point for any candidate other than President Biden, unless something happens between now and the election that forces a change.


Right. Nor, and it seems important to mention this, is there anything approaching a meaningful public call to even have that conversation at this point?


Exactly. They recognize that that conversation is too late to have at this point. And so a lot you hear from some Democrats, even the ones who are uncomfortable with that, a call to say, enough of the discussion about this. We need to figure out how to beat the other guy, not so much beating up on our own guy. And so in effect, the baseline strategy is to say, okay, sure, Biden is old, but Trump is crazy. That's the argument they're going to make. And wouldn't you rather have a well-meaning but elderly guy, to paraphrase Robert Hertz report, versus a person who, in their view and in the view of a lot of Americans, is reckless and dangerous. And then Trump himself decides to say something that will play right into the Democratic strategy.


Just explain that.


Well, thank you very much.


South Carolina. We've had a great relationship with South Carolina.


So he's in South Carolina at a rally on Saturday, just two days after the Herb report comes out. And he's talking about NATO and how NATO members should be spending more on their military, and he's been pushing them to do it. And he recounts this story where he says, anyway, a NATO ally once asked him, Well, sir, If we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?


I said, You didn't pay? You're delinquent?


If we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us? And he said, No.


No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.


Not only would I not protect you, he says, he would encourage the Russians to do whatever the hell they want. In other words, he would encourage an enemy to attack America's own treaty allies.


Most politicians have said to that, Yes, we will protect you under any circumstances. Well, then they're never paying up.


Right. And suddenly, the question of Biden's age is no longer the central story of the moment, and it's put in a very different perspective.


It absolutely is, right? Exactly. It's not just that he changes the subject, which is important and helpful to the Biden camp, it's that he helps the Biden people reframe the age question to say, Which is more important to you, somebody who forgets a name or can't someone a date or somebody who would completely undermine the entire international order, as we have known it for generations. From their viewpoint, this helps put the age question in perspective.


But I think what's ultimately so fascinating about this moment is the reality that Biden, those around him, the Democratic Party, arguably have made the choice in this election perhaps more complicated than it ever really needed to be.


If you think that Trump is a unique threat, and so many Democrats argue that, so Democratic leaders argue that, then you have the hard but necessary debate about whether the 81-year-old President, Joe Biden, should be the nominee, whether it makes sense, whether it creates the strongest possible chances for victory. Democrats didn't do that. They didn't. They just pretty much went through the motions to renominate Biden. How do you think about that?


I think that's a very interesting question, an important question. The party didn't really have that conversation in an open way. They deferred to the incumbent president because he wanted to run again. And because they thought, at least at one point, that his argument that he was the one person who could beat Trump would be the safest pair of hands in a way. But the polls show he's not. The polls show that he's running even or even behind former President Trump, and he, in fact, is not a guarantee to win in 2024.


Right. In other words, the party made a risky bet when their argument is that the risk on the other side is intolerable. To that point, Peter, How does the President, those around him, the party, plan for a 10-month long campaign now where eyes are trained on the question of Biden, his age, his acuity? What do we understand to be their strategy for making the most of a pretty tricky situation?


Yeah, there's actually a lot of debate and tension about this within Biden world. There are those who want to protect him, make sure that he doesn't have too many opportunities to make mistakes that would embarrass him. And there are those around him. There are people in the wine house in the administration I hear say, Let him lose, put him out there, and he will do fine. Most broadly, though, I think the broad strategy is they're just going to have to gut it out. There's no chance of changing candidates at this point, so just live with it. Make the contrast with former President Trump. Make the argument that you've got two old men, both of whom have their issues about age, but that one of them is a responsible actor and the other is not. And the question is, will they be able to make that case the American public, and will the American public buy it?


Well, Peter, thank you very much.


Thank Michael. Great talking to you.


We'll be right back. Here's what else you need to know today.


Today, after not just a long night and weekend, but after months of work, we can say it's been worth it.


On Tuesday, after months of tense bipartisan negotiations, the US Senate passed a long-awaited foreign aid package for Ukraine and Israel that now appears doomed in the US House. The $95 billion aid package was originally linked to tougher security measures at the US-Mexico border, as Congressional Republicans had demanded. But once former President Trump denounced announced that bill, the Senate proceeded with legislation that funded Israel and Ukraine without border security. Despite overwhelming support for the legislation in the Senate, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said he would refuse to bring the bill up for a vote in his chamber because it lacks border security, despite opposing the version of the bill that contained border security.


And I call on Speaker Johnson to rise to the occasion to do the right thing. Bring this bill to the floor.


In a speech on Tuesday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pleaded with Johnson to change his mind.


It is clear that if that bill is brought to the floor. Our bill is brought to the floor. It will pass.




On this vote, the Yeiser 214 and the Yeiser 213, the resolution is adopted.


House Most Republicans have impeached the Secretary of Homeland Security after trying and failing to do so last week. Republicans have shown no evidence that the Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has committed any constitutional crimes, but instead, faced their impeachment on objections to his policies, which they say have failed to secure the border. There is no chance that Mayorkas will be convicted in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Finally, in the closely watched special election to fill the seat of Republican Representative George Santos of New York, who was expelled over his lies and financial schemes, the Democratic candidate Tom Swasi has defeated his Republican opponent. Because Democrats have flipped the seat, Republicans can now lose only two votes on any partisan bill. Today's episode was produced by Carlos Prieto and Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Rachel Quester with help from Paige Cawet, contains original music by Chelsea Daniel, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDYRLE. That's it for the Daily. I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.