Playbook: A day Biden world wishes it could forget

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DRIVING THE DAY

TALK OF THIS TOWN — Michael Schaffer’s latest column: “To See the Toxic Effect of Crime on Politics, Look at Local DC”

THE ARGUMENT —DONALD TRUMP had a very good day at the Supreme Court Thursday by doing something very un-Trumpy: pulling his punches,” Josh Gerstein writes in his walkthrough of the warm greeting received by attorney JONATHAN MITCHELL’s decidedly un-Trumpian arguments.

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THE AFTERMATH — “Justices across the ideological spectrum seemed skeptical of a Colorado ruling that deemed Trump ineligible to appear on the state’s ballot because of his involvement in stoking violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021,” Kyle Cheney and Zach Montellaro write in their look at five key moments from the arguments.

THE STORY THAT BIGFOOTED THE COURT CASE — “It felt like a Comey moment for me.”

That was the assessment of a top Biden campaign official watching special counsel ROBERT HUR’s report explode yesterday.

In July 2016, FBI Director JAMES COMEY ripped into HILLARY CLINTON for being “extremely careless” with classified material and noted that there was “evidence of potential violations” of the law. Then he delivered the actual news: “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” In a scathing report, the DOJ’s inspector general later harshly criticized Comey for his actions.

Like Comey, the Biden official argued, Hur put his “thumb on the scale during an election season.”

Biden’s lawyers raised the C-word with Hur even before the report became public. Why, they demanded, had Hur called Biden “totally irresponsible,” the same words Biden used to criticize Trump’s retention of classified documents, when in other parts of the report they took pains to note the differences between the two cases? Biden’s lawyers invoked the IG’s Comey report in arguing that “totally irresponsible” was the new “extremely careless.” They said Hur’s “criticism of an uncharged party violates” DOJ protocols. (Former Attorney General ERIC HOLDER seems to agree.)

But the real peril in the report was the one highlighted by Biden’s lawyers in two pages of forceful language that laid out their shock and indignation at Hur’s repeated criticisms of Biden’s memory — an issue that, given voters concerns about the president’s age, is central to the 2024 election but seemed gratuitous in Hur’s report.

“We have also considered that, at trial, 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,” Hur wrote in the most quoted line of the document.

But there was much more:

  • Page 9: “Mr. Biden’s memory was significantly limited, both during his recorded interviews with the ghostwriter in 2017, and in his interview with our office in 2023.”
  • Page 208: “Mr. Biden’s memory also appeared to have significant limitations … Mr. Biden’s recorded conversations with [ghostwriter MARK] ZWONITZER from 2017 are often painfully slow, with Mr. Biden struggling to remember events and straining at times to read and relay his own notebook entries. In his interview with our office, Mr. Biden’s memory was worse. He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013 — when did I stop being Vice President?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still Vice President?’).”
  • Page 247: “For these jurors, Mr. Biden’s apparent lapses and failures in February and April will likely appear consistent with the diminished faculties and faulty memory he showed in Zwonitzer’s interview recordings and in our interview of him.”

Biden’s lawyers pounced on the editorializing, saying the descriptions were not “accurate or appropriate.”

Hur’s report, they wrote, “uses highly prejudicial language to describe a commonplace occurrence among witnesses: a lack of recall of years-old events. Such comments have no place in a Department of Justice report, particularly one that in the first paragraph announces that no criminal charges are ‘warranted’ and that ‘the evidence does not establish Mr. Biden’s guilt.’”

White House officials were in the dark all week about what Hur would do, knowing the worst of what could be in the document but hoping that their back-channel appeal would force some edits. “Hur did not indicate whether he would make any changes,” said a person familiar with the process.

Hur was apparently unmoved by the Biden legal team’s arguments. When White House officials saw the final version on Thursday it was all still there: the repeated references to Biden’s “hazy,” “significantly limited,” and “poor” memory, and the comments about Biden’s “totally irresponsible” actions.

But for Biden, the cheapest shot — and the one that most infuriated him — was this line: “He did not remember, even within several years, when his son BEAU died.”

The report was released as Biden was attending the House Democratic retreat in Virginia. The president vented about the Beau line privately during a small meet-and-greet with House Minority Leader HAKEEM JEFFRIES, Democratic Caucus Chair PETE AGUILAR and party leaders (“You think I would fucking forget the day my son died?” he said, according to the AP).

He repeated a version of the line without the F-bomb during a Q&A with a larger group of House Dems. And, according to a source familiar with the planning for the hastily arranged news conference last night, Biden was angry and defiant and still feeling especially outraged by the Beau line when he decided to face reporters and defend himself from Hur’s slurs — and then compounded the questions about his memory issues by referring to Egyptian President ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI as the “president of Mexico.”

The view from Biden world is that Hur’s gratuitous editorializing was driven by two factors:

  1. Partisanship: “We have to remind people that this is a MAGA guy,” said the campaign official.
  2. Pride: Hur had failed to find indictable conduct.

“The prevailing feeling is that they poured all these resources into investigating — and we were very cooperative — and he’s the only special counsel investigation that’s ever not led to charges,” said one Democratic defender of the president. “And I think that there’s probably some frustration around that that led to this over-torquing: ‘So let me just shit on [Biden] about memory!’ And also crossing a line that very few people would ever think about crossing when it comes to Beau.”

If Biden world seems defensive, it’s because they know Hur hit on an issue that the campaign has no real way to combat with ads or fancy strategy.

“The fact that he’s a senior citizen is not going to go away,” the Biden campaign official told Playbook. “What I’ve said to my colleagues is that we all have to remind the American people that sometimes we forget shit.”

Related reads: “Age isn’t just a number. It’s a profound and growing problem for Biden,” by Jonathan Lemire and Elena Schneider … “Eight Words and a Verbal Slip Put Biden’s Age Back at the Center of 2024,” by NYT’s Shane Goldmacher, Reid J. Epstein and Katie Glueck … “Biden and Trump: How the two classified documents investigations came to different endings,” by AP’s Alanna Durkin Richer

Happy Friday. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT — “Trump sweeps Nevada Republican caucus in race with no major challengers,” by the Nevada Independent’s Jacob Solis … “Donald Trump clinches win at US Virgin Islands caucus, which defied Republican Party rules,” by AP’s Dánica Coto

THE PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: CHRIS MURPHY — Ryan sat down with the Connecticut Democrat yesterday to discuss the saga of the border deal he negotiated with Sens. JAMES LANKFORD (R-Okla.) and KYRSTEN SINEMA (I-Ariz.). Murphy shared the inside story of the construction of the bill — from Lankford’s scrupulous negotiating tactics (“If you negotiate with James Lankford, you are negotiating text, not ideas”) to Sinema’s unique roll (“Sinema is trying to figure out a way to get the two of us on the same page. … She is … very squarely focused on getting a result”) to the intense pain he experienced when Donald Trump sabotaged the deal and the whole thing collapsed. Finally, he told us why he thinks Biden’s position on immigration is misunderstood — and whether his string of high-profile negotiations are an audition for higher office.

Listen to the full episode of Playbook Deep Dive on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

CRACKS IN THE BLUE WALL, PART I — “How the GOP Started to Win Latinos in Pennsylvania — Without Even Trying,” by Charles McElwee: “As the biggest prize of the presidential swing states this year, the site of one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests, and with eastern Pennsylvania serving as home to two toss-up U.S. House races, it’s no exaggeration to say that control of Congress and the White House could hinge on where these Latino voters land in November. The question is whether Pennsylvania Republicans will take advantage of it.”

CRACKS IN THE BLUE WALL, PART II — “Biden officials visit Dearborn for intense meetings on Gaza with advocates, politicians,” by the Detroit Free Press’ Niraj Warikoo and Todd Spangler: “‘They were apologetic,’ [Dearborn attorney ALI] DAGHER said. ‘[Deputy National Security Adviser] JON FINER specifically apologized for the language being used. He apologized for the administration’s failure to stop the dehumanizing of Palestinians. He apologized for … how the president has talked about the Palestinians.’”

WHAT’S HAPPENING TODAY

On the Hill

The Senate is in. The House is out.

3 things to watch …

  1. The Senate is in today under the threat of weekend work, and it sure looks as though the jet fumes aren’t going to win out this time. Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER has vowed to keep lawmakers in Washington (and away from a planned two-week recess) until they finish up a $95 million foreign aid supplemental. But it remains unclear if leaders can notch an amendment deal setting up final passage, and Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) is vowing to slow things down in any case. More below
  2. Rep. CATHY McMORRIS ROGERS’s stunning retirement announcement yesterday opens up yet another coveted GOP chairmanship. Already two Energy and Commerce members, Reps. BRETT GUTHRIE (Ky.) and BOB LATTA (Ohio), are in the running for a promotion, and whispers abound that Rep. RICHARD HUDSON (N.C.) could possibly abandon his climb up the leadership ladder for a run at the gavel once held by the likes of JOHN DINGELL and FRED UPTON.
  3. So what happens if the Senate manages to pass the supplemental? Speaker MIKE JOHNSON is so far refusing to commit to putting a combined Ukraine-and-Israel funding vehicle on the House floor. Hence, there’s already speculation about a discharge petition, and Minority Leader HAKEEM JEFFRIES said yesterday he’s “prepared to use every available legislative tool.” But it might be so straightforward: Many Democrats could refuse to support Israel aid absent conditions, meaning way more than a handful of Republicans would have to break party ranks and sign on.

At the White House

Biden will host German Chancellor OLAF SCHOLZ for a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office. Later, he will travel to Wilmington, Delaware.

VP KAMALA HARRIS will deliver remarks at the White House this afternoon at a gathering of community violence intervention leaders.

On the trail

Trump will speak at the National Rifle Association Presidential Forum tonight in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

PLAYBOOK READS

CONGRESS

CAUGHT IN A LOOP — After being stuck in a lengthy cycle of negotiations on border security and aid to Ukraine, the Senate GOP is now requesting border adjustments to a package that looks a lot like the first one they rejected months ago. “Three months ago, most Senate Republicans were resolute: No way in heck were they sending money to Ukraine without simultaneously securing the border,” Burgess Everett and Ursula Perano report. “Yet on Thursday, 17 of them advanced a bill that would do just that.”

How it went down: “There’s always been a strong contingent of pro-Ukraine Republicans in the Senate, but the solidification of Trump’s presidential bid over the past few months seems to have tamped those numbers down. Simultaneously, the ouster of KEVIN McCARTHY and the installation of new Speaker MIKE JOHNSON made the path to passage in the House exponentially tougher. In short, that wasted time mattered politically. What once could have passed both chambers of Congress last fall now looks increasingly impossible.”

What’s actually in the bill: “After the collapse this week of a bipartisan agreement to include border policy changes in the package, Schumer salvaged $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, as well as roughly $35 billion for Israel, other allies and national security priorities in the current legislation,” AP’s Stephen Groves and Mary Clare Jalonick report.

More top reads:

  • While talk of the border continues to consume Washington, House Dems are talking up another issue at their annual policy retreat in Virginia: abortion rights. But NBC’s Scott Wong and Rebecca Kaplan surfaced some anxiety out in Leesburg about whether Democrats should be taking the border issue more seriously. (Notably, the confab featured panels on housing, labor, climate, artificial intelligence and other issues — but not immigration.)

MORE POLITICS

THE GRAPPLE FOR GREAT NECK — The candidates in next week’s special House election to succeed former New York Rep. GEORGE SANTOS faced off last night in an intense Long Island debate, “tangling over the roots of New York City’s migrant crisis, abortion rights and, at one point, the definition of ‘assault weapon,’” NYT’s Nicholas Fandos reports.

Democrat TOM SUOZZI blasted Republican MAZI PILIP “for highlighting challenges like border security without detailing how she would resolve them,” writes Emily Ngo. “Pilip sought to portray Suozzi, a former member of congress, as polished but not practical. … Emotions ran highest on questions about border security, the prevailing issue in the district that straddles the border of Long Island and New York City, which is confronting an influx of migrants.”

Related read: “Hochul goes from enemy to frenemy for Tom Suozzi,” by Nick Reisman

TRUMP CARDS

IT’S HIS PARTY — Trump’s stronghold over the GOP isn’t exactly new, but with his victory last night in the Nevada caucuses, his success in whipping congressional Republicans to block a bipartisan border deal they’d asked for, and his twisting the arm of the RNC into shaking up its leadership in an election year, “seldom has the sheer sweep of the former president’s dominance been laid bare more clearly than this week,” Chris Cadelago and Adam Wren report this morning.

The 30,000-foot view: “The power moves from Trump and his allies were a reminder of Trump’s dominion over the GOP. More than that, they illustrated how much the election-denying wing of the party remains in control — even after Republicans lost the White House in 2020, underperformed in the 2022 midterms and took a beating in several special elections.”

More top reads:

  • Former Trump trade adviser PETER NAVARRO was ordered to begin his four-month prison term yesterday after refusing to appear before a House committee investigating Jan. 6 insurrection, WaPo’s Spencer Hsu reports: “Navarro … has one more chance to avoid being put behind bars — if he can convince a federal appeals court that his legal challenges are likely to succeed, a premise that his trial judge rejected.”
  • “Trump’s media deal partner nears $50 million financing,” by Reuters’ Anirban Sen

AMERICA AND THE WORLD

MIDDLE EAST LATEST — In comments somewhat overshadowed by the special counsel drama, Biden at his impromptu news conference declared Israel’s retaliatory military campaign in Gaza “over the top.” The remarks, Samantha Latson notes, were “some of his sharpest criticism yet of the U.S.’s Middle Eastern ally,” and they came after Israeli PM BENJAMIN NETANYAHU dismissed Hamas’ latest cease-fire proposal.

The breakdown meant Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN returned from the Middle East empty-handed, with negotiators still “far apart on conditions” for a new deal, AP’s Tia Goldenberg reports: “Hamas wants hundreds of prisoners released and is expected to demand freedom for militants behind some of the deadliest attacks against Israelis. … While Israel considers them to be terrorists, Palestinians view them as heroes battling Israeli occupation. Virtually every Palestinian has a friend, relative or acquaintance who has been imprisoned.”

Elsewhere in the region: The killing of an Iraqi militia commander backed by Iran in a U.S. drone attack has the potential to exacerbate already tense ties between Washington and Baghdad, putting pressure on Iraq “to expel the U.S.-led coalition aiding the fight against Islamic State in the country,” WSJ’s Sune Engel Rasmussen and Benoit Faucon report: “Washington and Baghdad last month began formal talks aimed at winding down the coalition, but no timeline has been set for their completion.”

WAR IN UKRAINE

PUTIN’ HIS FOOT DOWN — In a lengthy two-hour interview with former Fox News host TUCKER CARLSON, Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN called on the U.S. to “make an agreement” to grant Ukrainian territory to Russia and end the war in Ukraine. “Much of the interview constituted a familiar Kremlin history lesson about Russia’s historical claim to Eastern European lands,” NYT’s Anton Troianovski reports. “But Putin was more direct than usual about how he sees his Ukraine invasion ending: not with a military victory, but through an agreement with the West.”

Putin also responded to a question about detained American journalist EVAN GERSHKOVICH, stating there’s an “ongoing dialogue” surrounding Gershkovich’s release. “[It] doesn’t make any sense to keep him in prison in Russia … we are ready to talk, moreover, the talks are on their way,” Putin said. More from Matt Berg

SUNDAY SO FAR …

FOX “Fox News Sunday”: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Reporter panel: Brit Hume and Chad Pergram. Panel: Matthew Continetti, Mary Katharine Ham, Jeff Mason and Juan Williams.

NBC “Meet the Press”: Chris Christie. Panel: Peter Alexander, Brendan Buck, Amna Nawaz and Jen Psaki.

CBS “Face the Nation”: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

MSNBC “The Sunday Show”: California Gov. Gavin Newsom … Blair L.M. Kelley.

ABC “This Week”: Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Panel: Donna Brazile, Reince Priebus, Rachael Bade and Rick Klein.

CNN “State of the Union”: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Panel: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Alyssa Farah Griffin, Adrienne Elrod and Scott Jennings.

CNN “Inside Politics”: Panel: Eva McKend, Melanie Zanona, Mario Parker and Elliot Williams.

PLAYBOOKERS

Chris Coons and Olaf Scholz, NATO’s favorite brothers from another mother, reunited.

Kevin McCarthy showed up for Donald Trump’s victory speech last night in Vegas. (He said he was in town for the Super Bowl.) (He also said he has no interest in becoming RNC chair.)

There’s a comfy new hangout spot in Cannon.

IN MEMORIAM — “Will Lester, longtime AP journalist in South Carolina, Florida and Washington, dies at age 71,” by AP’s Meg Kinnard: “Former Washington bureau chief Sandy Johnson recalled how Lester’s ‘critical voice’ and in-depth knowledge of Florida politics helped steer AP through the murky waters of the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, as television networks called the presidency for Bush and then retracted it. Lester was part of the AP team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for work on that longest of election nights.”

OUT AND ABOUT — Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater hosted its annual D.C. Gala Benefit on Wednesday evening to mark the company’s weeklong engagement at the Kennedy Center during Black History Month. SPOTTED: gala co-chairs Lyndon Boozer, Sela Thompson Collins, Lisa Warner Wardell and Yebbie Watkins, vice chairs Joyce Brayboy, Michael Collins, Lawrence Duncan III, Anthony Lewis, Tanya Leah Lombard, John Mason, Jennifer Stewart, Nicole Venable and Katharine Weymouth; HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, Maryland Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, Bennett Rink, Matthew Rushing, Daria Wallach, Anthony Kendall, Gina Adams, Jack Pitts, Lata Reddy, Lonnie Bunch, Vincent Evans, Jonathan Capehart, Juleanna Glover and Nichole Reynolds.

— SPOTTED last night at the TheDream.US’s tenth anniversary celebration at the National Museum of American History: Cristela Alonzo, Gaby Pacheco, Don Graham and Henry Muñoz.

MEDIA MOVE — Lauren Feiner is now senior policy reporter at The Verge. She previously was a tech policy reporter at CNBC.

TRANSITION — Christina Martin Kenny will be director of fundraising at Public Wise. She previously was director of development at She’s the First.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: POLITICO Pro (13) … former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe … Washington Gov. Jay Inslee … CNN’s Manu Raju … White House’s Dilpreet Sidhu … POLITICO’s Danny O’Dea Charles Luftig of ODNI … Kelly Lungren McCollum Raphael Chavez-Fernandez of Rep. Ruben Gallego’s (D-Ariz.) office … Elana Firsht … AEI’s Chris Gavin … Star Cypress Partners’ Chloe ArevaloDom Bartkus of HarrisX … Melanie Kenderdine … Indiana AG Todd Rokita Anna Perina Boris Zilberman … former Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) (6-0) and Gary Franks (R-Conn.) … former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) … Gail Huff BrownEliza Griswold Joseph Stiglitz Peter Hatch

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected] or text us at 202-556-3307. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike DeBonis, deputy editor Zack Stanton, producer Andrew Howard and Playbook Daily Briefing producer Callan Tansill-Suddath.

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