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What you need to know about the Biden classified documents report and the fallout

President Biden speaks at the White House on Feb. 8, 2024 in Washington, DC., where he sought to emphasize his cooperation with the investigation and defended his fitness for office.
Nathan Howard
Getty Images
President Biden speaks at the White House on Feb. 8, 2024 in Washington, DC., where he sought to emphasize his cooperation with the investigation and defended his fitness for office.

Updated February 9, 2024 at 6:33 AM ET

A year-long investigation into President Biden's handling of classified material will not result in any charges. Special counsel Robert Hur concluded in his report that the evidence investigators uncovered falls short of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" that Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified materials.

Despite the legal win for the president, the report was politically damaging for Biden. It details shoddy handling of classified documents and specifically points out gaps in Biden's memory when discussing the information during his interview with the special counsel — fueling an existing political concern about his age and mental acuity.

The report comes at a sensitive time for the president: He's locked in a tight race with Donald Trump, his predecessor as president who is the front-runner for the Republican nomination; his job approval remains low, as does the view of his handling of the economy and, especially, immigration — in addition to persistent concerns about his age. The special counsel's assertion that he's an "elderly man with a poor memory" is hardly going to help.

Still, Biden sought to dispute the unfavorable parts of the report in a fiery press conferenceThursday night, emphasizing his cooperation with the investigation and defending his fitness for office.

Here's what you need to know about the report, and the fallout that began immediately after its release.

What the report includes

The report covers what materials have been uncovered, what's known about how they were handled — going back to Biden's time as vice president — as well as the legal arguments around whether charges were appropriate.

There are photos of the boxes that contained classified materials, including one damaged box with documents about Afghanistan that was found in the garage of Biden's home in Delaware "near a collapsed dog crate, a dog bed, a Zappos box, an empty bucket, a broken lamp wrapped with duct tape, potting soil, and synthetic firewood."

The bulk of the report focuses on two types of classified materials — documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan; and notebooks that Biden used throughout his presidency for a combination of personal reflections, meeting notes and other writings.

Biden relied on his notebooks in particular while writing his memoir Promise Me, Dad, which was published in 2017 and reflects on the year his older son Beau died of cancer, two years earlier.

In conversations with his ghostwriter for the book, he read from those notebooks — and on at least three occasions shared classified material while doing so.

In his interview for the special counsel investigation, Biden was "emphatic, declaring that his notebooks are 'my property,' and that 'every president before me has done the exact same thing,' that is, kept handwritten materials after his term in office, even if they contain classified material." He also referred to the diaries kept by former President Ronald Reagan after his time in office.

Why there aren't any charges

While the special counsel investigation did find some evidence that Biden knew he had some materials that contained classified information, the report says ultimately the evidence doesn't support bringing charges.

Hur said the evidence doesn't establish Biden's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that it would be hard to prove that Biden willfully intended to break the law.

For example:

"Mr. Biden's decision to read notes nearly verbatim to [ghostwriter Mark] Zwonitzer that Mr. Biden had just identified as potentially classified cannot be justified. But the evidence does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to share classified information. Mr. Biden told Zwonitzer he was 'not sure' the notebook passage he read was classified. That is enough to create reasonable doubt about whether Mr. Biden acted willfully."

Hur outlines the ways in which a jury may side with Biden and not ultimately convict him for the missteps that the special counsel found.

The report says that to a jury, Biden would likely "present himself ... as he did during his interview with our office, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

What the response has been

Biden's lawyers directly took issue with the characterization of — and multiple references to — his memory in a letter to the special counsel that is attached to the public report.

"The report uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events," said Richard Sauber, special counsel to the president, and Bob Bauer, Biden's personal counsel.

The lawyers also note that the five hours of interviewing with Biden began the day after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, when Biden had numerous meetings with foreign leaders and his national security team.

In his press conference Thursday, Biden further defended his mental acuity, saying his memory was "fine." He angrily responded to Hur's description of a portion of an interview where Hur said Biden seemed to not remember when his son died.

"How in the hell dare he raise that?" Biden said, adding it was "none of their damn business," and choking up with emotion. "I don't need anyone to remind me when he passed away."

Republicans, including Trump — who is likely to face Biden in the general election in November — immediately seized on the line as a reason that Biden should no longer be president.

Trump also blasted the lack of charges as evidence of a "two-tiered system of justice." Trump is facing more than three dozen federal criminal charges related to his own handling of classified information after boxes of classified material were uncovered in unsecure locations at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla.

Trump and his associates have pleaded not guilty in the federal case, which is being prosecuted by special counsel Jack Smith.

Unlike in Biden's case, where the president consented to searches of his property and willingly spoke with investigators, Trump is accused of actively trying to obstruct officials from recovering classified material.

What happens next

Hur's investigation is closed, but the political fallout has begun. Biden will have to contend with renewed attention on his age and convince voters that he should serve another term as president.

In his press conference that began with his defense against the critical parts of the report, Biden, when answering a question about current hostage negotiations with Israel and Hamas, mistakenly said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt was the "president of Mexico."

In recent days in off-camera events, Biden has thrice mixed up names of foreign leaders, calling French President Emmanuel Macron "Mitterrand" and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel "Helmut Kohl." François Mitterrand and Kohl were former leaders of France and Germany, respectively.

Trump, meanwhile, is awaiting trial in multiple cases, including for the Mar-a-Lago documents case. And hours before the Hur report dropped on Thursday, the Supreme Court was hearing argumentsabout whether Trump could be disqualified from the ballot in Colorado for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Washington Desk