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Transcript of Biden’s interview with special counsel Robert Hur shows memory lapses — but also detailed exchanges

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Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert K Hur, speaks in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, July 27, 2017.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Hur’s bombshell report on President Joe Biden’s handling of classified documents concluded that he presented as an “elderly man with a poor memory” who was unable to remember key dates, including when he served as vice president and the year his son died.

Biden, for his part, has lambasted Hur for bringing up the topic of Beau Biden’s death, and his lawyers have criticized the report

But the transcript of Biden’s interview, which was reviewed by NBC News, paints a more nuanced picture on both sides.

Despite the president’s assertion that Hur brought up his son Beau’s death first, the transcript shows that it was Biden himself who did so, as NBC News has reported

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Biden, who often appeared to be thinking out loud in response to specific questions, at other points recalls in detail specific events from his time as vice president. 

Biden spoke with Hur for 3½ hours on Sunday, Oct. 8, and for 90 more minutes the next day. The timing was fraught, with a major international crisis having broken out on Oct. 7 when Hamas attacked Israel. 

Biden faced a barrage of questions from Hur and another federal prosecutor about documents he saw as vice president, where and how he stored them and why some sensitive materials remained in his possession for more than five years after he left office as vice president. 

At one point, Hur acknowledged that some of the questions he would ask would “relate to events that happened years ago.” Biden joked in response: “I’m a young man, so it’s not a problem.”

According to the review of the transcript, Biden at times expanded beyond the narrow subject areas of particular questions. At one point, he described in vivid detail a 2011 visit to Mongolia, where he displayed unexpected archery skills at a cultural performance in his honor.

Biden also often said he could not recall a specific incident or why, for instance, certain items were packed in certain ways. And at times, he or his attorneys challenged the prosecutors about the relevance or accuracy of questions they posed, with Biden at one point challenging the logic of one of Hur’s lines of questioning. 

U.S. President Joe Biden looks on during a campaign event at Pullman Yards in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. March 9, 2024. 
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

The full transcript has not been released. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., subpoenaed it and other materials related to the investigation.

Biden allies believe a full reading of the transcript will only bolster their contention that Hur’s characterization of Biden during the interview was not based in reality. If anything, they argue, Hur’s at-times meandering questioning may have contributed to the confusion.

Hur’s assessment of Biden’s mental fitness is likely to be front and center as Hur makes his first public appearance since the report was released last month, testifying Tuesday before Republican-led committees on Capitol Hill.

In his opening statement, Hur planned to defend his investigation, the final report and his treatment of Biden’s age.

“I knew that for my decision to be credible, I could not simply announce that I recommended no criminal charges and leave it at that. I needed to explain why,” Hur planned to say, according to an advance copy of his remarks.

In discussing the president’s age, Hur will say that his characterization was “necessary and accurate and fair.”

“What I wrote is what I believe the evidence shows, and what I expect jurors would perceive and believe,” he will say. “I did not sanitize my explanation. Nor did I disparage the President unfairly.”

Beau Biden’s death year

While the White House welcomed Hur’s decision not to bring criminal charges, officials bitterly protested the report he submitted to the Justice Department. Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney, accused Hur of “investigative excess” and said his report “flouts Department regulations and norms.” 

In a letter to Hur before the report was released, Bauer and Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, said that Hur’s comments about Biden’s memory were not “accurate or appropriate” and that they used “highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events.”

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill attend an event at Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center at New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware, U.S. January 19, 2021.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

Speaking to reporters the night the report came out, Biden flashed anger at Hur’s suggestion that he did not recall, “even within several years, when his son Beau died.”

“How in the hell dare he raise that?” Biden said. “I don’t need anyone, I don’t need anyone to remind me of when he passed away.”

Hur’s yearlong probe took him deep in the weeds of perhaps the most fraught period of Biden’s half-century in public life. Biden left office in 2017, nearly two years after he buried his son. Beau Biden’s cancer battle and the decision Biden would make later not to seek the presidency in 2016 began an unpredictable series of events that would ultimately take him back to the White House in 2021.

It was in trying to share some of that timeline that Biden, in his interview with Hur, made a mistake that Hur ultimately seized on in his report’s damning conclusion.

But even though Biden said Hur brought up the subject of his son’s death, it was, as NBC News has reported, first raised by Biden himself. Roughly midway through the first day of his interview, Hur asked Biden about where he might have stored documents related to the work he was engaged in after he left the vice presidency in 2017.

“Remember, in this timeframe, my son is — either been deployed or is dying,” Biden said. 

As he continued thinking back to the period, he appeared to conflate his consideration of running in the 2016 election, in the months after Beau Biden died in 2015, with the early considerations of a 2020 bid after he left office. 

“Even though I’m at Penn,” he said, referring to the Penn Biden Center, which was established after he left office, “I hadn’t walked away from the idea that I may run for office again.”

Biden then asked what month his son died before quickly stating the date: May 30. The transcript indicates others present interjected to specify the year: 2015. 

“And Trump got elected in November of 2017,” he said, before the transcript indicates another participant corrected him to say 2016. 

“Yeah, OK. But that’s when Trump gets sworn in then,” he said, before he went into a description of the book “Promise Me, Dad,” which he would spend the next year writing, documenting the years leading up to and following his son’s death.

“This is personal,” he said.

There were other points during the two days of questioning when Biden appeared to misalign specific events to the right years. Discussing the moving of items in 2019 from a home he rented in Virginia to Delaware, he said he needed the furniture to set up a home studio to do media appearances during the coronavirus pandemic, which began a year later.

Zooming out

Those moments are likely to provide fodder for Republicans eager to further political attacks on Biden’s ability to continue serving in office. Tuesday’s hearing comes just days after Biden’s performance in the State of the Union address, which was applauded by fellow Democrats. 

US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2024. 
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

A full reading of the more than 250 pages of the transcripts reveals often mundane and prolonged back-and-forth discussions between Biden and the prosecutors about the ways he reviewed classified documents as vice president and how his belongings were transported among the White House, his Delaware home and other locations.

The two days of questioning had minimal breaks, with Biden often rejecting suggestions to pause the proceedings. 

“I’d rather just keep going. I’ll go all night if we get this done,” he said toward the end of the first day’s session.

Biden’s lawyers at times interjected when they took issue with prosecutors’ line of questioning, with Bauer at one point telling Hur he should not “put him in a position where he has to speculate or create assumptions, or try to engage in detective work.”

“I think we’re kind of going down a trail here that I find confusing,” Bauer said at another point. “They’re obviously trying to establish something,” Biden surmised. 

Biden’s career-long work in foreign policy was evident from start to finish. The sessions began with Hur acknowledging, without specifying, the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“I know there’s a lot of other things in the world going on that demand your attention,” Hur began. “We may be interrupted by one,” Biden responded, adding he had just spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden at another point described the role he played as President Barack Obama’s No. 2.

“I’d be the guy that’d basically take the heat, which I was prepared to do because I knew as much as they did,” Biden said, referring to early deliberations in the Obama administration about the future of the war in Afghanistan. 

He also noted that some of the issues he was dealing with as vice president continue today. One significantly redacted part of the transcript comes in the context of Biden’s recalling meetings he held as vice president with lawmakers in connection with the Iran nuclear deal. And discussing items Justice Department officials found about Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. in 2015, Biden noted he remains in touch with Francis.

“He’s my ticket,” Biden said, before making it clear he was joking. 

Lighter moments

Even amid tense discussions, Biden often found ways to lighten the mood. At several points he teased investigators about their various searches of his properties.

“I just hope you didn’t find any risqué pictures of my wife in a bathing suit, which you probably did. She’s beautiful,” Biden said at one point.

After a prolonged discussion of boxes found in Biden’s garage, Hur asked colleagues whether there were any other questions. 

“Yeah. When am I going to get the rest of it cleaned out?” Biden said.

Biden was particularly keen at one point to discuss his love of cars, in connection with questioning about boxes found near his Corvette. At one point the transcript includes “Makes Car Sound” to capture Biden’s comments.

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