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Robert Hur, the special counsel who blindsided Joe Biden

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When Robert Hur was appointed in January 2023 to oversee the politically delicate investigation into US President Joe Biden’s handling of classified information, US attorney-general Merrick Garland hailed his “long and distinguished career as a prosecutor”. Dick Durbin, the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary committee, also praised him as “distinguished”.

But Hur is now the target of Biden allies furious with the 345-page report’s depictions of the president’s mental fitness that cast him as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. It suggested, too, that his “memory was significantly limited” during interviews with investigators. The comments have thrust uncomfortable questions about Biden’s age back to the forefront of the 2024 campaign.

Dan Goldman, a congressman from New York, on Friday told MSNBC the report included “a number of highly questionable and seemingly partisan political assessments”. Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice-president, called comments about Biden’s memory “gratuitous, inaccurate and inappropriate”.

Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel’s office, at a press conference on Friday criticised multiple aspects of the report: “When the inevitable conclusion is that the facts and the evidence don’t support any charges, you’re left to wonder why this report spends time making gratuitous and inappropriate criticisms of the president.”

Some Republicans were irritated by the fact that the report did not recommend criminal charges against Biden. Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner to face Biden in the 2024 election, called it “very unfair” that there would be no indictment, given that Trump has been charged in connection with separate allegations of retaining classified documents.

From the outset it was clear that whatever Hur’s conclusions were, they would be put under a political microscope, given the sensitive nature of his assignment. But few could have expected the scale of the controversy he has unleashed.

When picked by Garland last year, Hur said he would conduct the probe “with fair, impartial and dispassionate judgment.” The role of special counsel is meant to insulate particularly sensitive Department of Justice investigations from accusations of political bias by choosing someone, often from outside the bureau — but familiar with its workings — to lead the charge.

Hur is one of several special counsels appointed by the DoJ in recent years, including Jack Smith to handle Trump investigations; David Weiss to oversee charges against Hunter Biden, the president’s son; and Robert Mueller to manage the FBI probe of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Hur came to the job with a sterling legal pedigree. He received an undergraduate degree from Harvard and studied at Cambridge before receiving his law degree from Stanford. He secured two highly coveted judicial clerkships — the first with Alex Kozinski, from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and then William Rehnquist, then chief justice of the US Supreme Court and part of the bench’s conservative wing.

During his career, Hur has gone back and forth between the public and private sectors. He has worked for law firms including King & Spalding and Gibson Dunn, and held a number of roles at the justice department, including serving as a top aide to then deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein early in the Trump administration.

Hur was nominated by Trump in 2017 to serve as US attorney for Maryland and confirmed with bipartisan support in the US Senate. He stepped down in 2021 after Biden was elected, as is customary for political appointees.

Hur, a registered Republican, has also given donations to a handful of the party’s political candidates over the years, including John McCain in 2008, during his presidential campaign, and Maryland governor Larry Hogan in 2017, according to Open Secrets.

A spokesperson for Hur’s office declined to comment.

Some legal experts called Hur’s report unusual. The “language and analysis” of Biden’s memory “crossed the line into being gratuitous and beyond [Hur’s] remit”, said Ryan Goodman, professor at the New York University School of Law. “One has to entertain that politics might have influenced the report because of the most unusual nature of it, the political context in which it is released and the gratuitous statements that have an obvious political repercussion.”

Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said the report was part of a “troubling trend”.

“The standard rule is that prosecutors should never explain their actions when they don’t charge and that rule has been somewhat eroded in recent years in . . . high-profile cases,” Richman said.

“The level of detail you go into is going to be a very hard judgment call and no matter what you do, you will be criticised for it.”

 

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