President Biden had just spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the morning of Oct. 8, agonizing over how to rescue hostages taken by Hamas in its bloody attack the previous day, pledging American assistance, and weighing a volatile situation that threatened to spiral out of control in the Middle East.
Shortly after they hung up, the president’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, and White House counsel Ed Siskel arrived at the White House. The group walked down one flight of stairs to the Map Room, where Biden was to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Hur, who for nine months had been investigating Biden’s handling of classified documents.
Those five hours and 10 minutes of interviews, unfolding over two days, would turn out to be momentous. But at the time, few foresaw how they would blow up four months later — not because of their content, but because Hur would repeatedly deride Biden’s memory during their time together. In a long-awaited report issued this week, Hur declined to prosecute Biden over his handling of classified documents but cast doubt on his memory, threatening to upend Biden’s pursuit of reelection by dwelling on perhaps his biggest political liability.
Hur’s description of Biden’s demeanor as that of a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” would infuriate Biden’s aides, who saw it as sharply at odds with what occurred as the president sat for voluntary questioning, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount internal discussions. Hur cited the president’s ostensible memory problems in concluding that he would have trouble convincing a jury that Biden had willfully mishandled classified documents.
In the view of Biden’s team, the interviews proceeded in a routine, even dry, manner, as prosecutors asked Biden where he bought a particular file cabinet and how certain boxes were packed.
Biden himself was focused at the time on more immediate and world-shaking matters, having just made a round of phone calls to U.S. allies that would affect the roiling situation in the Middle East.
Biden and his attorneys even discussed postponing the interview, but they ultimately decided against it. They had already blocked off two days on the president’s schedule and, with the investigation already dragging on much longer than anticipated, were eager to put it behind them. They never contemplated resisting Hur’s request for the interview, figuring Biden had little to hide and would benefit from being transparent, according to members of his legal team.
Inside the White House, workers had converted a space on the first floor into a secure setting where classified information could be discussed. Long tables were brought into the Map Room, which takes its name from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the space to consult maps and track the progress of World War II. It is also the room where, in 1998, President Bill Clinton testified to independent counsel Ken Starr about his role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Biden and Hur sat across from one another, each with about four aides. Bottles of water sat on the table. Biden was flanked by Bauer to his right and Siskel to his left. Hur, who would be asking the questions, was accompanied by his deputy Marc Krickbaum, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, and several FBI agents.
The session started roughly on time, a rarity for the perennially late Biden. Hur introduced himself, noted the presence of a tape recorder that would be recording the session, listed everyone in the room, and began matter-of-factly interrogating the president.
The topics were straightforward, according to the people familiar with the matter and Hur’s later report, tracking years-old movements of boxes full of documents, including those that were packed up as Biden finished his vice-presidential term. Hur asked how documents were packed and shipped, and by whom. Biden was queried on when he purchased specific file cabinets and what he stored in them.
There were a few moments when one side or the other cracked a modest joke, with a mood more conversational than confrontational. But the subject matter, and the tone, was mostly dry and factual, according to the people.
In some cases, Hur or his assistants would ask Biden to confirm that the handwriting on certain documents was his own — including on a folder that contained “Afganastan,” a misspelling that prosecutors later said repeatedly showed up in Biden’s writing dating back to the 1980s.
The president’s team had spent significant time preparing Biden to discuss his role in handling the documents, as well as his views on the propriety of keeping notecards where he had jotted down classified information, assuming that was what Hur was interested in. They did not anticipate that the president’s ability to recall dates or other details would figure into the questioning, let alone form such a devastating element of Hur’s report.
“Christ, that goes back a way,” Biden said at one point, reviewing a folder that read “Pete Rouse,” a longtime Senate staffer who was later an aide to President Barack Obama.
Biden at times told Hur he had limited knowledge of how the documents ended up where they did. He was asked at one point how a binder labeled “Beau Iowa” ended up in a well-worn box in his garage that also contained sensitive governmental material. Beau Biden, the president’s son, died of brain cancer in 2015.
“’Somebody must’ve, packing this up, just picked up all the stuff and put it in a box, because I didn’t,” he said, according to Hur’s report.
Hur later recounted that Biden could not remember exactly what year his vice-presidential tenure began or ended, citing that as evidence his memory was “significantly limited.” The president’s allies forcefully reject that characterization.
At some point, the discussion turned to the year when Beau died; Hur later reported that Biden could not recall the year with specificity. Biden has angrily denied not knowing when his son passed away, adding that it was not Hur’s business to ask such a question in the first place.
It is unclear exactly how Beau Biden came up during the interview, but some classified documents were found intermingled with photos of Beau and condolence notes that were received after his death. Investigators also reviewed Biden’s notebooks, some of which included “entries about purely personal subjects, such as the illness and death of his son, Beau,” they later reported. Beau also came up as they asked about his post vice-presidential pursuits, which included the Cancer Moonshot.
In addition, investigators explored the use of classified materials for Biden’s book “Promise Me, Dad,” which covered the aftermath of Beau’s death, though they concluded that no secret material made it into publication.
After several hours of questioning on Oct. 8, the two sides came to a stopping point and finished for the day. Later that afternoon, a live band could be heard from outside the White House as the president and first lady Jill Biden hosted a barbecue for staffers of the executive residence and their families.
The next day was Columbus Day, a Monday and a federal holiday. In the morning, Biden met with his senior national security advisers to continue discussing the situation in Israel. They were especially concerned about Iran and its proxies seizing advantage of the unstable situation and the possibility that the conflict could spread and engulf the broader Middle East.
One senior administration official involved in the Israel response, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, said they had no idea that Biden had also been sitting for the special counsel interviews in this midst of the international crisis.
Biden planned that afternoon to speak with close allies of the United States, in hopes of sharing information and coming up with a joint position and strategy. But first, around midday, it was time to continue the meeting with the special counsel and his team. The two sides again filed into the Map Room, where the setup was the same as the day before.
One line of inquiry that afternoon involved a memo that Biden had sent to Obama in 2009 about Afghanistan — a classified document that Biden took from the White House and was later found in his garage, sitting in a damaged cardboard box near a dog crate, a broken duct-taped lamp, and synthetic firewood. Biden had a copy of the memo, the special counsel later said, because he viewed it as a key piece of evidence showing that he was right to argue within the Obama administration for a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, a recommendation Obama nonetheless rejected.
Biden told Hur that he had stayed up late on Thanksgiving, writing by hand the only memo that he ever sent solely to Obama and no one else in the government, Hur’s report said.
“I was trying to change the president’s mind, and I wanted to let him know I was ready to speak out … and to really, quite frankly, save his ass,” Biden told the special counsel during the Oct. 9 interview.
He initially told Hur that he was not aware he had kept the memo after his vice presidency ended in January 2017. Asked a follow-up question, he responded, “I guess I wanted to hang onto it for posterity’s sake. I mean, this was my position on Afghanistan. And it later became discussed …. It became discussed inside the foreign policy establishment that I was recommending it.”
Emerging from the interview, Biden and his team felt the sessions had mostly gone as expected. It never occurred to them that Hur’s final report would provide scathing descriptions of Biden’s ostensible memory lapses, making his conclusions politically explosive even as he concluded that no charges were merited against Biden for mishandling classified documents.
The shock of Biden’s lawyers is evident in a letter they wrote in response to the report.
“At the outset of the interview, you recognized that the questions you planned to ask ‘relate to events that happened years ago,’ but nonetheless expressed your hope that the president would ‘put forth [his] best efforts and really try to get [his] best recollection in response to the questions we ask,’” Biden’s attorneys wrote. “It is hardly fair to concede that the president would be asked about events years in the past, press him to give his ‘best’ recollections, and then fault him for his limited memory.”
All that, however, was in the future. For the moment, Biden’s lawyers felt the interview had gone as well as could be expected.
And Biden had more urgent issues.
Immediately after the interview concluded, he walked to the Oval Office to meet with his national security team and call European counterparts. He also called Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) who was in Israel, to check on him and see if there was anything the White House could provide.
That night, the White House was illuminated in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, to express solidarity with an ally that had just lost more than 1,000 citizens to a terrorist attack and was about to launch a long, deadly war. Biden, according to a person close to him, had retired up to the residence that night to work on a speech he would deliver the next day.
Yasmeen Abutaleb, Perry Stein and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.