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How Justice Dept. special counsel policies let Hur critique Biden’s memory

The conclusion laid out in special counsel Robert K. Hur’s final report was straightforward: Joe Biden mishandled classified materials, though there was not enough proof that he intended to break the law to meet the Justice Department’s high prosecution threshold.

But the 345-page report also contained explosive information about President Biden’s allegedly faulty memory, overshadowing the issue of how he stored sensitive government materials after his vice presidency ended.

Hur portrayed the president as an elderly man who shared sensitive information with his ghostwriter and struggled to remember key details in his life — unleashing calls from Republicans that Biden is unfit to serve, and a furious backlash from Democrats who said assessments of the president’s memory were inappropriate.

The appointment of a special counsel is intended to make high-profile, sensitive investigations as independent and apolitical as possible. But current and former Justice Department officials said the increasing reliance on special counsels to handle such investigations has upended a central principle of the agency: to avoid prejudicing the public against people who are not charged.

“Special Counsel Hur report on Biden classified documents issues contains way too many gratuitous remarks and is flatly inconsistent with long standing DOJ traditions,” former Attorney General Eric Holder, a Democrat, wrote on social media Friday. “Had this report been subject to a normal DOJ review these remarks would undoubtedly have been excised.”

Hur’s blistering characterization of Biden has made the report intractable from politics during an election year in which Biden’s opponents already were focused on his age and questioning his mental fitness.

Some legal experts say aspects of the report have echoes of FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision in 2016 to call Hillary Clinton “extremely careless” as he publicly announced that he would be closing an investigation into her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Comey was a top federal law enforcement official whose agency is not responsible for deciding when to prosecute. Unlike Hur, he was not tasked with issuing a report to explain his investigation. But he broke with FBI protocol by publicly discussing an investigation that ended without charges. And his words impugned Clinton’s credibility ahead of the presidential election in which she was the Democratic nominee, just as Hur’s report seems to have done with Biden as he seeks a second term.

Attorneys general typically name special counsels to lead investigations when the public could reasonably perceive a conflict of interest if the attorney general — a presidential appointee — were to oversee it. A special counsel has more independence from Justice Department leaders than other federal prosecutors, but still ultimately answers to the attorney general.

Hur was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who promised Congress even before he saw the report that he would make as much of it public as he was legally allowed to do.

Garland named Hur to investigate classified material found in Biden’s private home and former think tank office months after he appointed a special counsel to investigate former president Donald Trump’s potential mishandling of classified materials, as well as Trump’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. Garland also appointed a special counsel to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter. Both the Trump and the Hunter Biden special counsels have led to criminal charges detailed in federal grand jury indictments, which contain far less information than special counsel reports.

Under department regulations, a special counsel submits a confidential report to the attorney general, explaining his or her decisions whether to prosecute (Justice Department policy precludes charging sitting presidents). It is up to the attorney general to decide whether to make that report public.

When Garland received Hur’s report Monday, he could have made redactions before he sent it to Congress. President Biden could have also exerted executive privilege and made redactions. But neither did. Had they wanted to, legal experts said, they would have had to inform Congress, and likely would have received intense backlash from Republicans.

Congressional leaders are likely to ask Hur to testify about the report. Lawmakers have already asked the Justice Department to release the transcripts and records of the interviews that were part of the investigation.

Hur’s report lists many reasons it would be difficult to convict Biden of willfully mishandling classified documents when he was out of office — including that Biden knew some of his predecessors also had kept notebooks with sensitive information, and that his handling of his own notebooks in 2017 showed instances where he “took steps to ensure” he did not share classified information with the person helping him to write a memoir. The report said some classified material found in Biden’s possession appeared to have been packed up by staff by mistake, and noted that, as president, Biden quickly handed over classified material his aides found last year.

But Hur also used scathing details about Biden’s memory lapses to help explain why he was declining to recommend pursuing charges against the president after he leaves office. Among the reasons: Biden’s memory was reportedly so bad that a jury would struggle to believe he intentionally retained the classified information.

“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 report. “It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him — by then a former president well into his eighties — of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness.”

Hur is a well-respected attorney who served as U.S. attorney in Maryland and as a senior Justice Department official during the Trump administration. When he was appointed special counsel, his former colleagues described him as fair-minded and apolitical. He vowed to lead the investigation with “fair, impartial, and dispassionate judgment.”

Harvey Eisenberg, a recently retired assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Hur in Maryland, said that Justice Department rules require prosecuting decisions based on a “reasonable probability of conviction.”

In the report, Harvey said that Hur appeared to include details about Biden’s memory to show how he assessed whether there was a strong chance that Biden would, hypothetically, be convicted at trial. Hur wrote that the president’s struggle to recall specific details of when and where he handled documents would have made it harder to convince a jury that he deliberately broke the law.

“He never uttered a political word to me or showed an inclination to have politics play a part in any decisions that I was making,” said Eisenberg, who was not involved with the special counsel. “I’m sure he didn’t take it lightly, that would be atypical of who I know the man to be.”

Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general under President Barack Obama, helped craft the special counsel regulations in the 1990s, as a young Justice Department lawyer. Katyal said officials at the time expected that most special counsel reports would not be made public, given long-standing Justice Department guidelines to not comment when prosecutors decline to indict someone.

But that’s changed in recent years. In 2019, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election helped establish a new norm: Reports would be made public, in an effort to demonstrate transparency and that an investigation was thorough and fair.

Katyal, citing his own role in creating the special counsel rules, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that year saying Mueller’s report should be released so that the public would “have confidence that justice was done.”

On Friday, Katyal questioned Hur’s decision to include Biden’s alleged mental lapses during hours of interviews, including that he could not remember the year his son Beau died of cancer and struggled to recall the years of his vice presidency (Biden angrily denied those characterizations after the report was released).

“Perhaps there was some justification for special counsel Hur to comment on the president’s age and mental fitness, but I severely doubt it, and the report is not reassuring in this regard,” Katyal said in an email. “It seems gratuitous and wrong.”

Justice Department declination memos — which prosecutors write when they decide not to pursue charges, essentially ending an investigation — are virtually never made public. That’s in part because Justice Department guidance says that prosecutors should be sensitive to the privacy and reputation of people they are not charging. When charged, criminal defendants have the chance to defend themselves in a court of law. But when a person is publicly accused of problematic behavior but not charged, they have no opportunity to present evidence and mount a defense.

Legal experts said that what’s so striking about the Hur report.

“It would have been sufficient to say that we did not have sufficient evidence that he was acting willfully,” Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former federal prosecutor, said at a public roundtable on Friday. “To instead besmirch his reputation struck me as going a bit above and beyond what you would expect from an ordinary prosecutor.”

As a special counsel, Hur’s “legal outcome is indeed fair and appropriate,” said Anthony Coley, a former Justice Department employee who was the agency’s top spokesman when Garland appointed Hur last January. “But the editorializing — the excessive, unnecessary commentary about an uncharged individual — does not reflect DOJ’s best traditions.”

Aaron C. Davis and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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