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Special Counsel Report: Biden Willfully Retained Classified Information But Will Not Face Charges. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 08, 2024 - 15:00   ET


EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: They also say that it's clear that Joe Biden has a faltering memory, that he's an old guy. They point that out and they say that for those reasons they don't believe that they could sustain a conviction against Joe Biden.

I will note one other thing, guys, that part of this investigation, it appears, that the ghostwriter in this case who was working with Joe Biden deleted some audio files that contained important evidence once that person learned that this was an - that there was an investigation. So the Special Counsel looked into the possibility of charging that ghostwriter with obstruction of justice.

They said in the end that they decided not to bring charges like that because the ghostwriter ended up cooperating with the investigation, provided additional evidence, including some of the most damning, some of the most damning evidence, including these audio tapes that show him talking with the former vice president, Biden, about that classified document - those classified documents related to Afghanistan, guys?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Tell us a little bit more just to refresh for viewers about Robert Hur, the Special Counsel here.

PEREZ: Well, Robert Hur is - was - he served in Republican administrations. He served as a Republican appointee. He served as a former U.S. attorney during the Trump administration in Maryland. He was tapped by Merrick Garland, the attorney general here, because the then former sitting - the U.S. attorney in Chicago, John Lausch, who had been reviewing these documents, the finding of some of these documents in the - in late - or just over a year ago, that required a Special Counsel to investigate this matter.

And so Robert Hur has now been on the job for about a year. And as I pointed out, they claim that - they say that they have done 147 witness interviews, 7 million documents from - certainly from our reporting with Paula Reid and Katelyn Polantz. And we've heard from witnesses that they've been very, very thorough in this investigation.

And so we have long expected, Brianna and Boris, that this was going to be a very tough, tough report for Joe Biden. And the inevitable comparisons are going to be made, right, with the Trump investigation, because obviously the fact this report in - details how Joe Biden willfully retained documents when he was not supposed to after he left the vice presidency. And so the question will be asked, why no charges here versus the charges that are brought - have been brought against former president, Trump. And Robert Hur, in his report, goes into that. He says that there are a number of factors that make this very, very different, including the fact that Donald Trump refused to turn over documents, classified documents, after he received a subpoena that required him to turn it back over, that there were a number of other obstruction acts by the former president, including telling witnesses to lie and hiding documents when the FBI came to do a search of Mar-A-Lago. So for those reasons, Robert Hur says, this is a completely different situation. It's not quite the same thing as the Trump investigation, guys?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Evan, I want to zoom in on something that you just reported was in the report about this ghostwriter that was helping President Biden write a memoir that apparently had material that was deemed classified and inappropriate for him to have. You mentioned that it was some of the most damning evidence is the implication here that that evidence was designated as top secret, the highest level of classification.

PEREZ: Right. That is exactly what the report says. The report says that among the documents that were found during the FBI searches were documents at the highest level, which is TS/SCI, right, Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information. And these are some of this, again, some of the highest classifications of documents that exist in the U.S. government.

And by the way, the similar level classifications of documents were found at Mar-A-Lago during the FBI search there. So the comparison, of course, is there as well. And a lot of them had to do with Joe Biden's personal notes, notebooks that he took of situation room discussions.


Part of this was Joe Biden's very, very strong opposition to a troop surge in Afghanistan late in the Obama presidency. And this was a very important thing, the report describes, that this was a very important part of Joe Biden's legacy as vice president. It was very well detailed. It's something that he discussed with his ghostwriter.

And the ghostwriter produced audio recordings of those discussions. And in one of those discussions, the former vice president at the time in this recording says, I just looked or I just retrieved these classified stuff downstairs. I don't have it in front of me the exact wording, but that is the gist of the comment that is made by Joe Biden, then the former vice president, to his ghostwriter. He says, I just looked at this classified stuff downstairs.

And that is - appears to be, according to this report, the most damning evidence that really investigators found in this case, in this investigation. They go on to point out, however, that they can't establish that the documents were actually being held at the Virginia home that the - that Joe Biden and his family were renting at the time and there was a number of other factors that lead them to believe that they could not sustain that if they were to try to bring charges against Joe Biden for that particular incident, where he clearly knows that he has classified information from his time as vice president and was sharing it with his ghostwriter who was not cleared, who was not - who did not have the right clearances to have that information.

Again, that's the most - appears to be the most damning piece of evidence that the investigators found in this investigation.

KEILAR: Yes. No, it certainly is that he knowingly had that information ...

PEREZ: Right.

KEILAR: ... and was sharing it.

I want to go now - Evan, if you can just stand by for us as we're following this breaking news, a Special Counsel out with a report that former - while he was not president, Biden willfully retained classified information that he knowingly did so, but that there are not going to be any charges here.

I want to go to MJ Lee, who is at the White House for us.

MJ, any reaction from the White House?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, no official reaction yet from the White House or the White House counsel's office. That is the office that the White House has typically referred all questions, including earlier today related to this investigation. They, of course, have known that this was going to be out any day now because remember, the White House counsel's office did have time to review the investigation in full for any matters of executive privilege, which it decided not to exert.

I know that you've been talking about the two major headlines, which is that no criminal charges are being brought, but also that - despite that decision, the investigation uncovered evidence that the President willfully retained and disclosed classified materials. But I think there is also a potentially very damaging political headline that we really need to take a beat to talk about as well and that is simply put that the President is an elderly man with a bad memory.

If you look through the report and I'm just still going through every page of this. But if you go through it, there is a detailed explanation here for why the Special Counsel's office decided not to bring criminal charges against the President. And at various junctures, the report mentions the President's memory and memory issues being a factor.

For example, it says the President's memory was significantly limited, both during his recorded interviews with the ghostwriter that Evan was talking about in 2017 and in his interview with our office in 2023. It also makes a reference at another point in the report, Mr. Biden's limited precision and recall during his interviews again with the ghostwriter and with the Special Counsel's office.

It also talks about how President Biden could present himself to a jury as a "sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory." Now, I don't have to tell you that these headlines sort of write themselves as far as sort of the opposition, and critics and Republicans are concerned. This has been an area of targeting by Republicans and the President's critics for a while now.

Even this week, we have been covering the fact that the President has had a number of misspeaks, a number of missteps when he was recalling events from the recent past, when he was talking about meeting with different world leaders, mixing up their names and who they were, who was alive at the time and not.


So in this way, I think it is just an important sort of framing and ammunition that this report offers to the President's critics, including, of course, former President Donald Trump. And I should also note regardless of what this report was going to ultimately say, the details of who did what, who was at fault, any other details revealed in this very, very thorough report, the White House was always sort of fully prepared for critics to weaponize this and use this to go after the President.

I think, though, one thing that it does have, the White House has going for it, is that it can now use Robert Hur's own words to draw that contrast between the circumstances surrounding the documents related to President Biden and the circumstances surrounding documents related to former president Trump.

If you look here, Robert Hur says that in contrast from Trump, President Biden turned in classified documents to the National Archives and the Department of Justice, consented to the search of multiple locations, including his homes, sat for a voluntary interview. We, of course, know that that happened back in October over the course of two days and in other ways cooperated with the investigation.

Now, I have to tell you, the President, of course, is going to face a lot of questions based on the details in this report. And just one - a big one that comes to mind for me, I was recalling back in January of 2023, this is a year ago when the news of these classified documents were initially breaking, President Biden told reporters, I was surprised to learn that there were any government records that were taken there to that office.

In other words, he suggested that when this came to light, that he was surprised and didn't even know about the existence of these classified documents in his office or his home. But if you look in the report, they cite a 2017 recorded conversation with his ghostwriter where the President himself says, I just found all of the classified stuff downstairs.

Now they say the tone was matter of fact, perhaps he has - was vice president for eight years, the fact that these kinds of documents were around him for so many years, he might have just said it in a flippant way and didn't even think that this was remarkable. But again, this is just one of the many questions that the President is going to have to answer or will certainly face in the coming hours.

KEILAR: Yes, they may try to draw some contrast. But he also in this report, it says he knowingly retained and shared classified documents and that is a giant arrow that is going to be used against him there.

SANCHEZ: Absolutely. MJ, please stand by, because speaking of ammunition for his critics, we want to go to Capitol Hill now where CNN's Manu Raju is getting responses from House Republicans, including from the Judiciary Committee.

Manu, what are they saying?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they just issued a statement criticizing the Special Counsel for not charging Joe Biden with a crime. And this is the comment that came via social media from the House Judiciary Committee led by Congressman Jim Jordan. It says that Special Counsel Robert Hur recommends no criminal charges against President Biden in the classified documents case.

It says, "Despite the fact that Hur acknowledges Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified materials after his vice presidency when he was a private citizen," it goes on to say, "double standard." And that is what we can expect to hear from Republicans here in the days and weeks ahead. Given that Donald Trump was, of course, indicted in that - over his mishandling and alleged obstruction involving the classified documents that ended up at his home in Mar-A-Lago after he left the presidency.

But Democrats are then - are quick to defend Joe Biden, saying that these situations are much different. That is a message that just came from the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, who put out a statement saying that MAGA Republicans will no doubt now call to investigate the investigators. He said that's their favorite move.

He went on to say that President Biden cooperated fully with the Special Counsel, redacted no portion of the report. Unlike Trump, he says Biden has nothing to hide. Nadler goes on to say that there is a contrast between the two. He said if Trump had cooperated, he might have avoided at least some of the 91 criminal charges against him.

So I - you can expect that this is going to be the line of arguments that are going to emerge from Capitol Hill. Party line defense from the Democrats, party line attacks from the Republicans. Of course, in the Senate, they are in the minority, so they don't have the investigative power that they do in the Republican-led House.

Will they decide to move forward in any additional investigation into this matter; will they put it aside that already have launched an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden over a whole set of separate issues that they are trying to prove; will they add it to this, those are some questions that they're going to have to confront.


They did receive - key committees did receive this report this afternoon. So a lot of members or most members in Congress have not seen this either. This is the first news that they're getting wind of it, but expect more reaction to come as more people dig into these findings here, guys?

SANCHEZ: Manu, this report comes the same week that this effort to impeach the DHS secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, fell flat. Republicans were angry with him about his handling of the border and there was an expectation that he might actually be impeached and that fell apart. It perhaps created some apprehension for Republicans that were bullish on also impeaching President Biden.

But now that this report is out, do you anticipate that we might see a revival of that effort?

RAJU: It's hard to say. See, because there are separate issues that the impeachment inquiry has been digging into it. It has really not been about Joe Biden's handling of classified information. It's about trying to tie Joe Biden to his son, Hunter Biden, and his business actions. Those efforts to try to prove a link or prove that Joe Biden profited in some way or acted corruptly while vice president to aid his son. They have not been able to prove that despite months of investigation.

Hunter Biden is scheduled to testify behind closed doors next month before the impeachment inquiry committees. But will that actually lead to any evidence that could charge them with a high crime or misdemeanor, that's uncertain. Also uncertain going down this route, even though there are these new findings and new allegations here, pulling this into an impeachment inquiry, suggesting that he is - this is a high crime or misdemeanor and something that should force them to remove him from the presidency.

They would have to spend a fair amount of time in going further and investigating what the Special Counsel found here, not just simply relying on his report. And that's going to take some time. And as you know, these things, as they (inaudible) drag closer and closer to an election, it gets harder and harder to do anything around here, especially in the narrowly divided House and the unruly House GOP conference.

So getting to the point of impeaching the President is going to be a tall task, even with these findings, no matter how damaging they may be for the President.

KEILAR: Yes, certainly.

Let's bring in Ashley Allison, who was a former senior policy adviser at the White House.

Ashley, just react to this, because it's really difficult to see how this - granted is not the same when it comes to Trump's documents case, but how this doesn't at least politically invalidate that as a problem for former president, Trump, and also create huge problems for President Biden when it comes to what it says about his age and memory? ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, a couple of things. I do think that the cases are different. But there is a baseline that you don't want classified documents outside of a secure location. The difference, though, is that Donald Trump, when given the opportunity to return those documents, he did not. He did not cooperate because he believes he has some other authority to do things that he doesn't after he was president.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, did allow for the documents to be turned over and cooperated with the investigation. I think it was important in both instances because of the polarized nature of our society, that both of those had Special Counsels, which they did. And the findings landed where they may.

Now, in regards to the commentary about his age, sure, the other side will use that to their advantage and politicize this in a way that I don't think either case should actually be done. I think we should just let it hand it out in the court of law. But do I think that this will be the thing that folks use to decide when they go to the ballot box in November? I don't think so. But both sides could potentially use it against one another. Definitely the Trump campaign will use it against Joe Biden.

But at the heart of it, we hope that we can get this election season outside of the courtroom and actually have candidates talking about the issues that matter most to voters. But because of the complicated and divisive political nature that we are in, we are finding ourselves in this wash repeat cycle that we are litigating our election policies within the court. Literally what just happened at the Supreme Court today and also with the findings with the Special Counsel for Joe Biden on his classified documents.

KEILAR: All right. Ashley, thank you for that.

SANCHEZ: We want to head back to MJ Lee, who's at the White House, because MJ, the White House just put out a new statement about Robert Hur's report and it goes in on the description by the Special Counsel of President Biden's memory. Tell us what it says.

LEE: Yes. This is a new statement that we've just received from the Special Counsel to the President. And it says that they are pleased that the investigation has concluded that no criminal charges were warranted in this investigation in this matter.


And it really leans into the fact that, as we were talking about before, President Biden has cooperated as a part of this investigation. It talks about how the team quickly self-reported the classified documents immediately returned to the government. These documents, as soon as they were found, not only was there no obstruction, the statement says the President's cooperation throughout this 15-month investigation has been extraordinary.

It also says that the President takes classified information seriously and strives to protect it. And it says that mistakes - these kinds of mistakes, when documents of this nature are packed, being made are unfortunately a common occurrence, basically saying that this kind of thing has been seen with other people, other administrations in the past, that it isn't just President Biden and the folks around him who may have made this kind of mistake.

Notably, at the end of the statement, it says we disagree with a number of inaccurate and inappropriate comments in the Special Counsel's report. Now, it doesn't say what in the report they thought they find to be inappropriate. That obviously is a pretty charged word. It's not just saying that they disagree, they're saying that they find some of these comments to be inappropriate.

One of my guesses would certainly be some of the comments we talked about earlier, referring to and talking about the President's memory issues, his recall during the interview that he had with the Special Counsel's office. But obviously, this is sort of the talking points that we are going to continue to see from the White House and allies of the President, that they didn't think that this was anything that warranted criminal charges to begin with, so they're certainly celebrating that. And they want to sort of emphasize that none of this was intentional, that this is somebody who takes the matter of classified documents seriously, and that there was full cooperation throughout the process.

And even if Donald Trump's name isn't mentioned, that context is really clear. And the contrast that they are trying to draw between President Biden and the circumstances here versus former president, Trump, and the circumstances surrounding those sets of documents, that is very, very clear that that's what they're trying to do here.

KEILAR: All right. MJ Lee, live for us at the White House. We're going to get in a quick break as we follow this breaking news, Special Counsel report about the President's handling of classified documents before he was president and after he was vice president. No charges going to be filed, but some of the most damning revelations in this having to do with his memory during the process of his interviews, some specifics there about what he did and did not remember. We'll have that after the break. It's going to be very important.



SANCHEZ: We've been following breaking news into CNN this afternoon, really scathing details in this report by Special Counsel Robert Hur detailing that President Biden, before he was president, after being vice president, willfully retained classified information. The Special Counsel, though, determining that President Biden will not face charges. The legal aspect of this case, perhaps a relief to the White House, but there are details here that politically are very difficult for this White House to move forward in a very contested, tough campaign with Donald Trump.

KEILAR: That's exactly right. Legally, it's not as if his hands are clean here because even though they say they will not be bringing charges, they did find in this report that he willfully had retained some classified information and had disclosed it to a ghostwriter, which is not nothing, that is significant.


KEILAR: But part of the reason why no charges will be brought was because they thought that he would appear to a jury as a sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory. And why is that? We'll hear the specifics from the report.

"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?")," that is a quote of what he said, "and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began ("in 2009, am I still Vice President?")."

"He did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died. And his memory appeared hazy when describing the Afghanistan debate that was once so important to him."

SANCHEZ: This comes at a time literally days ago when President Biden made several remarks that were inaccurate. They appeared anachronistic relating to public figures that had passed away previously. So you can imagine that the White House is going to have to do some cleanup here.

Let's go to the White House now with CNN's MJ Lee.

Because, MJ, we understand that the White House has put out a statement responding to the details in this report, and they specifically mention that they believe that the Special Counsel's treatment of President Biden's memory was inaccurate and inappropriate. What else is the White House saying about those details?

LEE: Yes, this is, to be clear, a new statement that we've just gotten from the President's personal lawyer. That is, of course, Bob Bauer. It, too, says that, as expected from the start, the Special Counsel concluded that no criminal charges were warranted.


But then it is a pretty fiery statement if you take a look at this part.