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Biden aides weigh the political fallout if a transcript of his special counsel interview is released

Biden aides weigh the political fallout if a transcript of his special counsel interview is released

WASHINGTON — The examination of President Joe Biden’s handling of classified material is officially closed as a legal matter, but the political battle is just beginning.

At the center of the fight: the contents of special counsel Robert Hur’s five-hour interview with the president.

Biden’s aides anticipate a lengthy partisan clash over the transcript, and possibly the audio recording, that would keep the president on the defensive over questions about his mental fitness as he campaigns for re-election, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The interview was a far more freewheeling discussion than what was detailed in Hur’s report, these people said.

They said Biden’s team is now weighing how to best position him to weather the protracted fallout from Hur’s report, which described the president as “an elderly man with a poor memory” and pointed to his answers in the interview as evidence.

The internal discussions among Biden aides have focused on how the transcript of his interview might help him versus hurt him politically when it comes to voters’ concerns about his age, the people familiar with the discussions said.

Another consideration is whether it would make strategic sense to release the entire transcript or — to the extent that full disclosure is avoidable — to publicize specific moments in the interview to help push back on questions about Biden’s handling of classified materials or mental fitness, the people familiar with the discussions said.

They said no final decisions have been made on an approach.

House Republicans on Monday requested that the Justice Department release any transcripts and recordings from the sit-down to three House committees — Ways and Means, Judiciary and Oversight — by 5 p.m. Monday.

The Justice Department is expected to ask for time to review the request to make sure all the equities are protected, including classified material and an executive privilege review by the White House.  

The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment.

Biden aides already have chosen to disclose certain portions of the interview that aren’t yet public to punctuate their public defense.

Biden’s personal attorney, Bob Bauer, said in a television interview this past Sunday, for example, that Hur began the interview by “thanking the president for making this scheduled appointment,” because it could have been rescheduled given that Hamas had launched its terrorist attack against Israel just hours earlier.

“Then he proceeds to say, ‘I’m going to be taking you through events that are many years ago.’ He flags that. ‘So all I can ask is your best recollection,’” Bauer said of Hur’s opening comments.

While an audio recording of the interview exists, there is no video component, according to two people familiar with the material.

The White House has said the transcript of Biden’s interview is going through a declassification process but has not said how long that process will take.

Two people familiar with the material said most of the lengthy transcript is unlikely to need redactions for classification reasons. But any public release of it could still take considerable time, they said, due to other hurdles.

A declassification review could require sending portions of the interview that are considered sensitive to different government agencies for their input, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, a person familiar with the process said.

The transcript would also typically be evaluated by law enforcement personnel, such as the Secret Service, for security sensitivities, this person said, because the interview includes discussion of details, such as security measures, at the president’s home in Delaware.

In addition, there may be underlying material in the interview — which was a far more freewheeling discussion than the report shorthanded, this person said — that includes deliberative discussions from the Obama administration and senior government officials that would also have to be reviewed.

And even once the declassification process concludes, the White House would still need sign off on releasing the transcript publicly and could exert executive privilege or cite privacy issues to prevent some portions from being disclosed.

The White House has embraced Hur’s overarching conclusion that Biden should not be criminally charged. But aides and allies to the president have sharply criticized and rejected the special counsel’s characterizations of Biden’s recall and charge that he came across in the interview as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

If released, the transcripts could become fodder for the president’s critics who are eager to portray him as unfit to serve due to his mental acuity and could further fuel a narrative that Biden is too old to seek another four years in office.

In their letter requesting the transcript and recording of Biden’s interview, House Republicans argued that the president’s treatment of classified documents is key to their investigation into Biden and will help them make a determination of whether there is enough evidence to support drafting articles of impeachment.

The White House has painted the move as a purely political one, stressing that the special counsel probed the matter for over a year.

Historically, once an investigation is closed, the Justice Department makes evidence from that probe available to Congress by request and to the public through a public information request, unless there are reasons that prohibit disclosure — including classification, sensitive law enforcement material and privacy concerns.

The White House counsel’s office declined to assert privilege over any of the special counsel’s nearly 400-page report last week.

Hur’s interview with Biden took place over two days, on Oct. 8 and 9, just hours after the terrorist attacks in Israel that — White House officials are quick to point out — demanded much of the president’s time and focus.

In addition to the interview transcripts, House Republicans are requesting any documents and communications related to Hur’s interview with Biden’s ghostwriter, Mark Zwonitzer.

The GOP-led committees have also asked Hur to testify before Congress, though no date has been set.

Monica Alba

Monica Alba is a White House correspondent for NBC News.

Ken Dilanian

contributed

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