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The Memo: Hur wins hearing over Biden, GOP

President Biden emerged bruised but not bloodied from a day of testimony by special counsel Robert Hur on Tuesday.

The big headline came from Hur’s comments that he had not fully exonerated Biden over classified documents found in the president’s possession in several locations, including his Delaware home.

The prosecutor noted repeatedly that his decision not to recommend charges against Biden was based on two related issues. First, serious doubts as to whether Biden had been willful in retaining the documents; and second, the assessment that conviction at trial was unlikely.

But if the non-exoneration was a blow to Biden and his allies, the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee fought their Republican counterparts to a draw over Hur’s hours of testimony.

In particular, Democrats constantly emphasized salient differences between Biden’s behavior and that of former President Trump, who has been charged over sensitive documents that were finally recovered — after a court-approved FBI search — at his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago.

In particular, they contrasted the cooperation Biden’s team had shown with Trump’s alleged efforts to frustrate authorities.

Hur had already inflicted serious political damage on Biden in a report released early last month, describing the president as coming across like “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Those comments put Biden’s age and cognitive capacities front and center at the start of an election year — and provoked an ill-advised, angry news conference at the White House.

But if Tuesday’s hearing put a spotlight back on the description itself, the release of the full transcript of Biden’s remarks presented a more nuanced picture.

On one hand, the transcript showed that Biden had been inaccurate at his news conference in suggesting that Hur and his team had unfairly raised the subject of Beau Biden, the president’s elder son who died from brain cancer in 2015.

In fact, Biden had raised his son’s death of his own volition and had indeed appeared confused as to the year in which it had occurred.

On the other hand, the full transcript showed Biden largely composed and sure of himself, despite the fact that the first interview with Hur’s team took place on Oct. 8, the day after the Hamas attack in Israel that killed more than 1,100 people. The transcript begins with Biden noting that he had just spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Tuesday, Hur defended his references to Biden’s powers of recall, asserting that they were salient in determining whether or not to press charges.

Hur insisted that his description in that regard was “necessary and accurate and fair.”

Whether this was in fact the case became a predictable topic of contention in the hours that followed.

Some Democrats on the panel, notably Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Hank Johnson (Ga.), were especially aggressive in suggesting that Hur — originally appointed as a U.S. attorney by Trump — had been out to get Biden or had been acting out of GOP-friendly political motives.

Schiff lambasted Hur for, as the California congressman saw it, making a “gratuitous” effort to “disparage” Biden.

An indignant Hur pushed back, insisting that “politics played no part whatsoever” in his words or decisions.

In truth, Hur was the one clear victor to emerge from Tuesday, thanks to serious and measured testimony, an absence of gaffes and an obvious unwillingness to do the bidding of partisans.

Prior to the hearing, loud voices on both sides of the partisan divide sought to characterize Hur as a patsy of the other side — conservatives because of his refusal to charge Biden, liberals because of his comments about the president’s acuity.

Those accusations looked increasingly implausible by the time Hur had finished his day in the spotlight.

Around him, it often felt as though the election campaign was being fought under the guise of a congressional hearing.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), in characteristically inflammatory style, seemed eager to get the word “senile” in as often as possible to refer to Biden during his questions to Hur. “The elevator didn’t go to the top floor,” Gaetz asserted.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) shot back that the reference to senility was “shameful.”

Democrats, for their part, sought to cast aspersions on Trump that were not all that different from the GOP charges against Biden.

In fact, the opening moments of the hearing were dominated by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) playing Biden’s February’s news conference almost in its entirety — only to be followed by ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) playing an extensive compilation of bizarre or fumbled comments from Trump.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) also played an embarrassing Trump video, showing the former president unable to recall the years of his marriage to his second wife, Marla Maples.

Closer to the hearing’s end, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said Trump was in no position to talk about “the mental acuity of anyone else.”

Bush further opined the overall pursuit of Biden amounted to an “irresponsible and easily repudiated Republican clown show.”

So it often goes on Capitol Hill in the current political climate.

For once, however, it was a day when both sides got some of what they wanted — and neither scored an emphatic victory.

For Biden, who faced real dangers on Tuesday, that is likely to be good enough.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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