March 13, 2024 - 10:00am

Political fireworks went off in yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing as the investigation into the President’s handling of classified documents continued. In the dock was Robert Hur, the special counsel appointed to look into files kept by Joe Biden in his private offices and homes after his time as vice president. The hearing was called to give the committee a chance to examine Hur’s report, which laid out the reasons — notably Biden’s age and memory problems — why the President was not charged with document-related crimes, as the Justice Department has done in his predecessor’s case.

While that was the stated purpose of the hearing, in reality its centre of gravity was a man who ostensibly had nothing to do with the case at all: Donald Trump. Virtually every exchange with Hur constituted an attempt by Republicans to call out the perceived hypocrisy of charging Trump for keeping classified documents, while declining to do so for Biden. On top of this, most of the counter-attacks by Democrats were aimed to paint Trump as a figure “incapable of avoiding criminal liability”, as Rep. Jerry Nadler (Dem), ranking member of the committee, put it.

As Hur responded to highly charged, rapid-fire questions with carefully calibrated legalistic answers, around him the committee members lobbed political grenades. Addressing the special counsel’s explanation for declining to charge the President because a jury would likely see him as no more addled than a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, Nadler played a mashup of clips showing Trump making verbal slips and forgetting personal life events.

The irony of this attempt was that Nadler, in seeking to show that no double standard had been applied by the Justice Department, was essentially arguing only that Biden is not more addled than Trump, who should “think twice about accusing others of cognitive decline”, as the representative put it.

Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, the committee’s vice ranking member and one of Trump’s most vociferous critics, launched a full-bore political attack, arguing that the former president was attempting to “pull the wool over the eyes of America because the dictators and tyrants [of the world] are on the march”.

Republicans attempted a more forensic approach to Hur’s findings. Rep. Jim Jordan, the chair of the committee, argued that Biden risked serious damage to America’s national security. He questioned the President’s motive for keeping the documents in the first place, emphasising that Biden shared classified information with his ghostwriter (a separate crime from merely retaining the files). Responding to Jordan’s point, Hur testified that the upcoming biography had netted the then-former vice president an $8 million advance. “Joe Biden had eight million reasons to break the rules,” Jordan quipped.

As the testimony dragged on for four hours, Trump, without stepping foot in the room, also never left it. Meanwhile, Biden, battered by the report and the testimony, but saved from total shipwreck by powerful allies skilled at using rhetoric to alter political realities, may just have been able to weather this latest political storm.