Joe Biden blocks release of audio from classified documents probe

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Joe Biden has blocked the release of audio recordings of his interviews with the special counsel who sparked a political firestorm in February by casting the US president as an “elderly man with a poor memory”.

In a letter to House Republican lawmakers on Thursday, the White House said that the president was asserting executive privilege over the recordings, which were made as the special counsel investigated Biden’s handling of classified documents.

House Republicans had subpoenaed the tapes and threatened to hold US attorney-general Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand them over.

Biden’s lawyer argued that there was no “legitimate need” for the tapes to be released, but the move is likely to reignite controversy in Washington over the president’s age and Republican efforts to depict him as unfit for office.

Edward Siskel, counsel to the president, said in the letter on Thursday that Garland had requested that Biden stop the recordings from being released.

In a letter seen by the Financial Times, Carlos Uriarte, head of the Department of Justice’s legislative affairs unit, told House Republicans that the department had “a responsibility to safeguard the confidentiality of law enforcement files where disclosure would jeopardise future investigations”.

Garland “must draw a line that safeguards the Department from improper political influence”, Uriarte added. The DoJ has released transcripts of the interviews.

Siskel accused Republican lawmakers of seeking the recordings so they could “chop them up, distort them, and use them for partisan political purposes”.

But Republican lawmakers accused the White House of running scared. James Comer, chair of the House oversight committee that has subpoenaed the recordings, said it was a “five-alarm fire at the White House”, adding: “Clearly President Biden and his advisers fear releasing the audio recordings of his interview because it will again reaffirm to the American people that President Biden’s mental state is in decline.”

Biden’s move comes just over three months after the release of a bombshell 345-page report by Robert Hur, the special counsel who oversaw the investigation into the president’s handling of classified materials found at his private residences and offices.

Hur said Biden would not face a criminal case, but his report referred to Biden, who is 81, as a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory” and cited memory lapses during interviews with the special counsel’s office in 2023, as well as with a ghostwriter working on his memoir in 2017.

The report put questions about the president’s age and mental acuity in the spotlight and exposed one of Biden’s major electoral vulnerabilities as he seeks re-election in November.

Opinion polls consistently show that most American voters believe Biden, already the oldest occupant of the Oval Office, is too old to be president. If re-elected, he would be 86 at the end of a second term.

Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican opponent, is 77 and would be 82 at the end of another four years in the White House. Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, accused the president and his administration of politicising executive privilege and “trying to use it to run political cover” for Biden.

Biden’s allies described Hur’s statements as gratuitous and inappropriate, and the president lashed out at the special counsel in a fiery, hastily organised press conference hours after Hur’s report was made public.

But Hur defended his findings before a congressional committee this year, claiming that he could not determine whether Biden had “wilfully” mishandled sensitive material “without assessing the president’s state of mind”.

“My assessment in the report about the relevance of the president’s memory was necessary and accurate and fair,” Hur added at the time.

Garland in January 2023 appointed Hur, a registered Republican, to probe Biden’s potential mishandling of classified material.

Additional reporting by Alex Rogers

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