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What the classified documents report could mean for Biden's bid for reelection

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden got a legal win and a political setback this week. A Justice Department special counsel found that while Biden may have mishandled classified documents after he left the vice presidency, he should not be charged. The report also took aim at a core vulnerability for Biden - his age. There's been a lot of fallout in the last day since the report came out, and NPR's Domenico Montanaro is here to bring us up to speed. Hey there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey.

SHAPIRO: How bad is this for Biden?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, it's not good for him because it plays into a bigger existing narrative about his age and fitness for office. You know, polling shows age is a bigger issue for Biden than for former President Trump, even though they're pretty close in age. An NBC poll out this week found that three-quarters of Americans have concerns about Biden's age and ability to do the job, as opposed to just half who said the same about Trump despite, again, the fact that Trump also makes these kinds of missteps. And he's also only four years younger. You know, he said that - he's confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. He mixed up President Obama with President Biden multiple times. He's confused Sioux City, Iowa, for Sioux Falls, S.D.

But because Biden's age is a bigger factor in people's minds, it plays into this broader narrative about whether he's up for the job. Fundamentally, though, I mean, I have to say I don't think this really changes a whole lot about this election. I think the frame is still which weighs out here - concerns about Biden's age or this very strong dislike for Trump, which is very real, that we've seen and helped Biden get elected in the first place.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's the White House said in the last day to try to help counter this?

MONTANARO: Well, Biden's lawyers call the insinuations of memory loss, quote, "gratuitous and inappropriate." They say that those descriptions don't belong in a report that ultimately cleared Biden of charges. You know, they have also emphasized that Biden fully cooperated with the investigation. Here was White House spokesman Ian Sams today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IAN SAMS: I think the public is smart, and I think that they can see what's going on. I think that they see a president who fully cooperated. I think they see a president who did the right thing and made sure everything got back. And I think that they see that this was a long investigation that ended without a case to be made.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And in addition to Sams, Vice President Kamala Harris is out there today. She's also a former prosecutor. She was asked about this at the white House and blasted the language in the report, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: The way that the president's demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous.

MONTANARO: So she defended the Biden that she sees behind the scenes. But a lot of this was really clean-up after Biden himself held a press conference last night, and he wound up stepping on his message, playing into the very thing that he was trying to refute - these questions about his age - when he mixed up Mexico and Egypt, for example. You know, that detracted from the message that he was trying to get across - his anger about this prosecutor, mentioning his son Beau and trying to get into the substance of what's happening with Israel and Gaza and how he believes Israel's response has been, quote, "over the top."

SHAPIRO: Put this into context for us because, as you mentioned, Trump is nearly as old as Biden, has also confused people's names and was actually criminally charged with mishandling classified documents. So how do the two situations compare? Why do you think this has stuck to Biden so much more than it has to Trump?

MONTANARO: I don't know that it stuck more to Biden than it has to Trump. I mean, certainly today we're talking about this. But, you know, half the country certainly or more has a very negative opinion of Trump and even higher than for Biden. It's just that, you know, you have Democrats who are willing to also talk about this as a potential problem for Biden because you have Democrats, too, who are saying that they think his age is an issue. When it comes to what Trump did versus what Biden did, though, as even the special counsel, Robert Hur, said, after being given multiple chances to return classified documents and avoid prosecution, Mr. Trump allegedly did the opposite, which is unlike what Biden did. The bottom line here is Trump probably wouldn't have been charged either had he just given the stuff back.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.