Mar 14, 2024

Robert Hur testifies to Congress.

Screengrab from CBS News
Screengrab from CBS News

Plus, what's going on in Haiti?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

How did the special counsel hold up to questioning? And what's going on in Haiti?

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Quick hits.

  1. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he is putting together a group to try to buy TikTok after the House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban the app from operating in the U.S. or force a sale by its Chinese owner. (The plan)
  2. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he plans to re-deploy military forces along Russia’s border with Finland in response to the country becoming a member of the NATO alliance last year. (The comments)
  3. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called for new Israeli elections. (The call)
  4. SpaceX successfully launched its Starship rocket, the most powerful ever built. The rocket flew for roughly an hour before breaking up over the Indian Ocean. (The launch)
  5. European Union lawmakers gave final approval to the Artificial Intelligence Act, a law intended to serve as a guide for other governments in how to regulate AI. Countries will be required to ban prohibited AI systems six months after the rules enter the lawbooks. (The legislation)

Today's topic.

Robert Hur’s testimony to Congress. On Tuesday, Special Counsel Robert Hur testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee about his final report on President Biden's handling of classified documents. 

Back up: In February, Hur released a 388-page report that cleared Biden of any criminal wrongdoing for his handling of classified documents, but he partially couched his rationale on his assessment of how a jury would view Biden’s age and memory. Hur determined that Biden had been sloppy in his handling of classified documents but did not willfully retain them, and while he said the decision not to prosecute was “straightforward,” he also characterized Biden’s memory in unflattering terms. The report played directly into concerns a majority of voters have about Biden's fitness for office as he runs for re-election at the age of 81.

“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,” the report said, adding that Biden seemed to have "diminished faculties in advancing age.”

Ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, the Justice Department released the transcript of Biden's two-day interview with investigators, which spanned roughly five hours in total. The transcript showed repeated mental lapses from Biden during the interview, including references to incorrect dates, times and events and his difficulty remembering certain common words (like “fax machine”). At one point during the interview, Biden could not remember the year his son Beau died, a point that the president explicitly contested when Hur’s report was first released. In the transcript, Biden gives the exact day Beau died (May 30), but could not recall the year (2015) before an aide prompted him. 

However, the transcript also showed Biden addressing a wide span of topics without incident throughout multiple interruptions. Biden spoke at length about the ways he handled classified documents as vice president and his memories from that period; at other times, he recounted detailed stories from his time in politics. At one point, Hur remarked that Biden had “photographic understanding and recall” of his house in Wilmington, Delaware. 

Hur’s testimony before the House marked his first public comments since the report’s release. Throughout the hearing, Hur reiterated that he decided not to charge Biden because he didn’t think he could persuade a jury that Biden acted “willfully” in his handling of the documents. As expected, he faced aggressive questioning from both sides of the aisle.

Democrats focused their questions on Hur’s depiction of Biden’s memory in the report, attempting to poke holes in how the president was portrayed and suggesting that Hur was politically motivated in his investigation. In one notable moment, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said to Hur, “You cannot tell me you’re so naive as to think your words would not have created a political firestorm… You understood how they would be manipulated by my colleagues here on the GOP side of the aisle, by President Trump.”

Hur responded, “What I understood is the regulations that govern my conduct as special counsel,” adding, “politics played no part whatsoever in my investigative steps.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) also clashed with Hur over his conclusion in the report, claiming that Hur "exonerated him." 

"I did not exonerate him," Hur said to Jayapal. "That word does not appear in my report." 

Republican lawmakers expressed frustration at Hur’s decision not to charge Biden, contrasting Hur’s investigation with Special Counsel Jack Smith’s into former President Trump’s handling of classified documents. At one point, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) asked Hur, “All I have to do when I’m caught taking home classified materials [is] to say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Hur, but I’m getting old. My memory’s not so great?’... This is the doctrine that you’ve established in our laws now and it’s frightening.”

“Congressman, my intent is certainly not to establish any sort of doctrine,” Hur responded. “I had a particular task, I have a particular set of evidence to consider, to make a judgment with respect to one particular set of evidence and that is what I did.”

Afterward, the White House downplayed the importance of Hur’s testimony, emphasizing that nothing new was revealed about his decision not to prosecute the president.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the reaction to the hearing and the transcript of Hur’s interview with Biden from the right and left, then give my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right criticizes Democrats’ treatment of Hur during the hearing, suggesting they damaged their credibility. 
  • Some say Hur effectively defended his decision making in the investigation.
  • Others wish that Republicans had been more focused in their questioning.

The New York Post editorial board said “Democrats’ badgering of Robert Hur only made President Biden look worse.”

“Democrats spent much of Tuesday’s House Judiciary hearing with Hur pushing him to call this an ‘exoneration’ of the prez. Oh, and bashing him for honestly saying how Biden came off in their interviews,” the board wrote. But “Hur is a straight shooter straight out of central casting. He gave Biden a way out of any future prosecution, though he made it clear the evidence could warrant a recommendation to prosecute.”

“Rather than be grateful for avoiding a high-profile embarrassment in an election year, Democrats couldn’t stop themselves from venting righteous indignation — which only succeeded in hurting the president’s image further. Hur took great care to say in his report everything he was going to say; all the Dems’ badgering did was force him to repeat himself,” the board said. “Biden knew perfectly well what the law is on classified docs; it didn’t stop him from taking stuff home back in his Senate days (when he had zero right), nor from knowingly holding on to more docs after he left office as veep.”

In Townhall, Matt Vespa argued Democrats are “running into a similar problem in attacking Special Counsel Robert Hur.”

“House Democrats have long waited in the tall grass to ambush Hur, who included damning portions in his report about the president’s memory,” but “Hur defended his assessment of the president’s cognitive abilities, which the American people know has been severely degraded,” Vespa wrote. “The ongoing liberal narrative is that Hur is a Republican out to smear the president. What he did, however, was well within department policy.”

“While not as explosive, Democrats are running into the same problem they had trying to discredit IRS whistleblowers Joseph Zeigler and Gary Shapley: they’ve got nothing. Zeigler and Shapley were credible IRS agents who detailed at length the pervasive interference they encountered by the Democrat-run Department of Justice when trying to investigate Hunter Biden. Hur is also a credible DOJ official who has thus far demonstrated he’s not some right-wing hack.”

In Fox News, John Yoo and John Shu wrote “Republicans missed a major moment” in the hearing. 

“For most Americans, the important issue is not whether Biden took classified documents home after the end of his vice presidency in 2017, but whether he is mentally fit to continue serving as president,” Yoo and Shu said. “Republican members failed to mine the most important area for questioning. While the Justice Department released the transcript of the interview, only Hur’s personal testimony could allow the American public to truly understand President Biden’s mental fitness. Committee members did not require Hur to address, for example, Biden’s demeanor, alertness, memory, truthfulness, and overall mental state.

“Republican members did not strongly follow up on Hur’s conclusion, in his report, that Biden’s answers were sometimes ‘not credible.’ They could have asked Hur to explain exactly which of his observations and Biden’s answers led him to believe that a jury might not convict Biden, and whether the DOJ could rebut those arguments at trial. They could have asked Hur why he didn’t focus on the classified documents in Biden’s possession that were from his senate days; senators may not remove such documents nor any notes about them from the SCIF, and thus Biden knowingly and wrongfully removed and retained those classified documents.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is unconvinced by Hur’s explanations for why he included an assessment of Biden’s memory in the report.
  • Some say the hearing and the transcript show that Hur acted improperly in the investigation.
  • Others doubt Hur’s claim that politics played no role in his report. 

The New York Daily News editorial board said the “Robert Hur show obscures the real takeaways.”

“Hours of testimony by Robert Hur… predictably revealed little new. Like many such recent hearings, it was intended not for fact-finding or accountability but pure theater,” the board wrote. “Some observers characterized the session as seeing attacks on Hur coming from both sides of the aisle, but it must be noted that these criticisms are not at all equivalent. Democrats went after Hur on the legitimate grounds that the special counsel injected irrelevant pseudo-medical analysis into his report… Republicans, for their part, were irate that Hur had not stretched the truth enough.”

“All this circus is a distraction from the main takeaway here, which is that a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney and clerk for some of the most conservative federal judges in recent memory — including late Chief Justice William Rehnquist — who might want a judicial or administrative appointment under a second Trump term, was unable to find a basis to charge Biden with a crime despite herculean efforts,” the board said. “Hur’s attempts to paint the president as on the verge of senility are refuted not only by the transcripts but the plain reality of Biden’s recent public appearances.”

In The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus argued “the special counsel was unfair to Biden and his transcript proves it.”

“It turns out that the special counsel mischaracterized and overstated Biden’s alleged memory lapses. He consistently adopted an interpretation that is as uncharitable and damaging to Biden as possible. Gratuitous is bad enough. This was gratuitous and misleading,” Marcus wrote. “Hur is entitled to his own interpretation, and it’s relevant, as he explained on Tuesday, to his assessment of how a jury would assess Biden’s conduct.

“But the special counsel well understood that his report to Attorney General Merrick Garland would be made public — and he understood, or should have, the political fallout that would result from his scorching assessment of Biden. So, he had a dual responsibility here, and he failed twice. First, he went beyond, far beyond, what was necessary to outline his concerns about Biden’s memory, and how that would impact any case against him. Second, as we just learned, his recitation of the facts was one-sided.”

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote about “how Hur misled the country on Biden’s memory.”

“The transcripts of Hur’s interviews with Biden… suggest that characterization—politically convenient for Republicans and the Trump campaign—was misleading,” Serwer said. “The transcript does not completely refute Hur’s description of Biden’s memory, but it is entirely incompatible with the conservative refrain that Biden has ‘age-related dementia.’”

“During his testimony before the House, Hur insisted that ‘partisan politics had no place whatsoever in my work.’ He tried to have it both ways, insisting that his report was accurate while refuting the most uncharitable right-wing characterizations of Biden’s memory. But as legal experts pointed out after the report was released, Hur’s description of Biden’s memory was not a necessary element of his duties, and it is unlikely that someone with as much experience in Washington as Hur would be so naive as to not understand how those phrases would be used politically.”

My take.

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  • Democrats say that Hur cleared Biden because of the evidence and Republicans say because of how he’d appear to a jury — both are right.
  • Hur got into it with nearly everyone, and his testimony wasn’t perfect but I thought he came across as reasonable and convincing.
  • I hope that the special counsel’s testimony finally puts this issue to bed.

When we first wrote about Hur’s findings, we touched on a lot of facets — the political storm it created for Biden, the question of whether Hur’s comments on his memory were inappropriate, and the justification for not charging him. Tuesday’s hearing was mostly a debate about the special counsel’s justification, so that’s what we’re focusing on today. 

Hur refuted the points raised by members of Congress from the left and right, but he didn’t contest their main arguments. He agreed with Democrats that his report found there wasn’t enough evidence of wrongdoing to prosecute. He also agreed with Republicans that he concluded a jury was likely to sympathize with Biden for appearing as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

So, which is it? Was there insufficient evidence of wrongdoing for the DOJ to prosecute Joe Biden, or would a jury sympathize with the president for seeming forgetful?

The answer — which seems obvious to me — is that it’s both. And there’s no reason why you can’t look at Hur’s report, read the transcripts of his conversations with Biden, and listen to his Congressional testimony and not hold both views at once. Contrary to the reaction from both sides, I thought Hur’s testimony was strong and provided insight about his initial findings — which, at the time, left me with a lot of questions. And although Hur didn’t come away unscathed, his testimony actually moved me to a much more favorable position on the decisions he made.

The only moments when I thought Hur gave less than stellar testimony were when he was responding to Democrats accusing him of being political. At several points, he intentionally talked over Democrats to protest the idea that he included comments about the president’s memory out of political motivation — even though those questions were obviously “in bounds.” Hur, who is a registered Republican, did not seem nearly as combative with Republicans. Did that show his partisan bias? Maybe. But it can just as easily be interpreted as a response to combativeness from Democrats.

All in all, I thought Hur came off as very poised and straightforward. Did his report “exonerate” Biden? No, it found insufficient evidence to prosecute, and Hur was right to insist upon that difference. Was the DOJ enforcing a double standard between Biden and Trump? Again, no, the cases are very different. What about the transcript, did it show that Hur depicted Biden inaccurately? I don’t think so — I think Biden probably gave the impression of a well-meaning older man who couldn’t easily recall times and dates. 

And lastly, did Hur bring up Biden’s age to cast him in a negative light politically? There’s room to argue on that point — but as I said when the report came out, including his assessment seems appropriate, and I only feel more confident about that after hearing Hur testify.

On the one hand, legal experts on the left have made a compelling case that including his assessment of Biden’s memory of the report was gratuitous, arguing that Hur lacked the evidence to charge Biden regardless and should have taken greater care to avoid politically inflammatory comments. That’s a good point, especially considering that Biden’s classified documents case is quite similar to former Vice President Mike Pence’s, which also did not lead to a prosecution. 

On the other hand, I think the transcript provides enough justification for Hur to include that opinion in his report. I encourage anyone skeptical of Hur to take some time to read the transcript of Biden and Hur’s interview, or at least a summary of it. It’s clear to me that Biden had trouble recalling basic information throughout the interview, and it’s somewhat unnerving to read about aides repeatedly reminding him about things like when he was vice president. Even taking the circumstances into account (the interview took place in the days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack), the extent of the memory issues Biden seemed to be having is absolutely relevant to Hur’s ability to successfully bring a case against the president. 

Ultimately, I think Hur should be commended for the consistency and openness with which he handled the case — praise that can’t be given to other recent special counsels. My earnest hope is that his testimony might allow us to put Biden’s classified documents case to bed, so that we can move on to other issues.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Why so quiet about the situation in Haiti? Should Americans be concerned that the whole island is basically under gang control?

— Bob from Massachusetts

Tangle: We haven’t exactly been “quiet” about it — we linked to Haiti in our “Quick hits” section on Monday. It just isn’t the kind of international news that we normally cover in Tangle, where we focus on U.S. politics.

Here’s the quick rundown: Gangs in Haiti stormed a major prison in Port-au-Prince, the capital, on the evening of March 3, freeing 3,700 inmates and leading the government to declare a state of emergency

“The prison attacks came after heavy gunfire broke out in Port-au-Prince in recent days, killing at least 12 people, following calls by gang leader Jimmy Cherizier to overthrow Prime Minister Ariel Henry,” according to DailyChatter. “Henry came to office shortly after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 and pledged to step down by early February 2024. But he later said that security must be re-established in the Caribbean nation to ensure free and fair parliamentary and presidential polls. The recent clashes took place as Henry was visiting Kenya to finalize the details of a UN-sponsored mission to help Haiti’s security situation.”

Gang violence has led to the displacement of over 362,000 people in recent years and over 15,000 people in the past two weeks, according to U.N. estimates. The situation is dire, as neighborhoods are burning, hospitals are looted, and hunger is widespread. Prime Minister Henry was able to negotiate 1,000 Kenyan police officers to come to the island of Hispaniola (which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic) to quell the violence, but that deal is now on hold as Henry has resigned amid the violence and mounting international pressure. Henry’s resignation has calmed the violence, but it’s unclear if that will last.

Should Americans be concerned? Absolutely, we should be concerned. Disruption in Haiti isn’t likely to be a security threat to American citizens, but we do have a significant diplomatic relationship with the Caribbean nation, and evacuating personnel from our embassy there is not a good sign. We won’t know the long-term effects of the instability until the violence settles, but the humanitarian situation in Haiti is harrowing. 

Add to the 362,000 displaced that nearly one million of Haiti’s 11 million people are on the brink of famine, and unrest and violence are commonplace. “There are young kids in the streets with heavy automatic weapons,” said 36-year-old Haitian Blondine Tanis, a radio broadcaster who was kidnapped in July. “They shoot people and burn their bodies with no remorse. I don’t know how to qualify that. I ask myself what happened to this generation.”

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Under the radar.

The continental United States experienced the warmest winter on record this year, with states in the northern tier of the country seeing the largest temperature increase from historical averages. New data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows some typically frigid states (like North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) experienced record-setting warmth, while temperatures across the U.S. as a whole were 5.4°F above average for the season (December-February). NOAA said recent notable climate events, such as a series of atmospheric rivers in the West and tornadoes in the Midwest, were likely driven in part by the warmer temperatures. Axios has the story.


  • 5 hours. The approximate amount of time Hur’s hearing lasted. 
  • 76%. Prior to its release, the percentage of voters who said they wanted to see Hur’s report made public, according to a February poll from Harvard CAPS-Harris.
  • 91%. The percentage of Republicans who said the report should be made public.
  • 64%. The percentage of Democrats who said the report should be made public.  
  • 53%. The percentage of Americans who agreed with the statement that "Biden received special treatment because he is the U.S. president” in the investigation into his handling of classified documents, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from February.
  • 64%. The percentage of Americans who said they considered it believable that Biden took classified information illegally after his time as vice president.

The extras.

Yesterday’s poll: 568 readers took our ranked-choice poll on Biden’s budget priorities with the most popular answer being to limit the deficit. The response clinched majority support in the 8th round of apportionment, and you can view the full interactive results here.

What do you think of Special Counsel Robert Hur’s testimony? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

James is an overnight security guard at a Providence College dormitory in Rhode Island, where he’s well liked by the residents. However, James’s family lives in Nigeria, and he has not seen them for years — which bothered the students in his hall who felt a deep connection with him. To help James reconnect with his family, the students launched a GoFundMe campaign with a modest goal of $3,500. They did not anticipate the overwhelming community response, and raised an incredible $26,000. "Once we learned that James had not seen his family in over a decade, that is what kickstarted this for us. We take care of our own, and we firmly believe James is one of our own,” Freshman Brandon Reichert said. Sunny Skyz has the story (and video).

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.