News

Did Biden Really Forget When His Son, Beau, Died?

What constitutes a fair reading of the Biden-Hur transcript?

Published March 14, 2024

 (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Image Via PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 8, 2024, Special Counsel Robert Hur released a 345-page report detailing the findings of a 14-month investigation into U.S. President Joe Biden's alleged mishandling of classified documents. Though Hur declined to recommend prosecuting Biden for the allegedly willful retention of classified documents, it produced headlines and viral social media posts because Hur justified his decision, in part, based on his opinion that Biden's recall of significant past events was severely limited.

Among the most significant claims in Hur's report to support that point was that during Hur's interview, "President Biden … could not pinpoint, even within several years, when his son Beau had died." (Beau Biden died from a rare form of brain cancer on May 30, 2015.) In response to the claims, allies of former President Donald Trump called for the invocation of the 25th Amendment to remove Biden from office, suggesting Hur's words demonstrated Biden's lack of mental competence.

Biden specifically disputed that assertion about the death of his son in a news conference the evening the report was released. "How in the hell dare he raise [Beau's death]," Biden said. "Frankly, when I was asked the question I thought to myself it wasn't any of their damn business. … I don't need anyone to remind me when he passed away." Anonymous sources later leaked details to outlets including The Washington Post, suggesting Biden's words were misconstrued. 

Without the actual transcript, however, it was Hur's characterization against Biden's denial. The incident added significant fuel to political talking points suggesting Biden is too hold to run for president in 2024. As a result, Hur was called to testify before Congress on March 12, 2024, about his report and his conclusions. Ahead of that appearance, the special counsel's office released the transcripts of Hur's interviews with Biden that took place on Oct. 8 and 9, 2023. 

Media coverage of the transcript also was polarizing. Some outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, asserted that the transcripts vindicated Hur. Others suggested they vindicated Biden. Bad-faith arguments could be made in support of both positions based on short clips within the transcript.  

Based on a complete reading of the interview, however, Snopes concludes that Hur's statement about Beau Biden's death was a misleading characterization of Biden's testimony for two reasons. First, the transcript showed that Biden did not forget the month or the day that his son's death occurred. Second, the transcript shows that Biden placed the event as occurring toward the end of his vice presidency. 

The October 2023 Biden-Hur Interviews

The exchange underlying the assertion that Biden forgot the date of his son's death occurred on the first day of questioning: Oct. 8, 2023. One of Hur's primary objectives in the interview was to understand Biden's role in the movement of a notebook photographed in 2017 at a residence rented by Biden, and again in 2024 in the garage of Biden's present personal home. 

That notebook contained personal reflections on his son's death and notes regarding policy decisions in Afghanistan in close proximity to each other — and both topics are discussed in a memoir Biden wrote after leaving the vice presidency titled "Promise Me, Dad." One document stored in this notebook was marked classified. 

Contrary to claims made in his news conference, the topic of Beau Biden was technically first raised by the president. Hur's question was aimed at understanding Biden's post–vice presidency mindset and plans:

MR. HUR: One of the other things that we know that you spent some -- a significant amount of time doing after the end of your vice presidency was writing a book, Promise Me, Dad. So when you were thinking about writing that book at the end of your vice presidency, how much time did you anticipate that would take of yours?

Given that its title stems from Beau Biden's words, it makes sense that Joe Biden would bring up his late son in response to a question about that book. After explaining that he had no idea how much time it might take to complete, Biden explained his general rationale for the book and the derivation of its title:

PRESIDENT BIDEN: I wanted people to know what a normal -- this is a guy [Beau], you know, on his death bed grabbed my hand and said, dad, I'm not afraid, don't -- promise me, dad, promise me, dad, you'll stay engaged, promise me. Because he knew how much I adored him, and he was worried I'd sort of walk away from everything I'd always worked on. So I wanted people to know what kind of man he was.

As described in that memoir and also in his interview with Hur, Beau Biden's words weighed heavily on Joe Biden when he was considering a run for president in 2016, and they were central to his decision, ultimately, to run in 2020. Biden returned to this point several times throughout the course of the first day's interview. During one of those incidents Biden mixed up the years associated with the end of his vice presidency and the death of his son.

'What Month Did Beau Die?'

Later in the interview, after speaking generally about what his plans were for his "time as a private citizen," Biden was shown a set of images from the D.C.-area home he rented following his vice presidency. Hur represented to Biden that the photos were taken in or around 2017. After viewing these photos, Biden was asked where, within this property, he would have placed documents related to his post–vice presidency initiatives:

MR. HUR: So during this time when you were living at Chain Bridge Road and there were documents relating to the Penn Biden Center, or the Biden Institute, or the Cancer Moonshot, or your book, where did you keep papers that related to those things that you were actively working on? 

"This is, what, 2017, 2018, that area?" Biden asked, apparently referencing the earlier representation regarding the documents in front of him. "Yes, sir," Hur replied. Hur was trying to understand Biden's possible use for maintaining vice presidential papers at this private residence. 

Biden, in response, began that same general story about Beau Biden as a way to argue that, while he had set up these initiatives for retirement, he had not yet ruled out reentering politics as a promise to his late son. 

A rigid interpretation of Biden's telling of the story at this portion of the interview shows Biden arguing incorrectly that Beau Biden's death occurred in "this timeframe" — the "2017, 2018" area referenced by Biden in response to the photos (emphasis ours):

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Remember, in this timeframe, my son is -- either been deployed or is dying … -- and by the way, there were still a lot of people at the time when I got out of the Senate [sic] that were encouraging me to run in this period, except the President [Barack Obama]. … He just thought that she [Hillary Clinton] had a better shot of winning the presidency than I did. And so … at this point, even though I'm at Penn, I hadn't walked away from the idea that I may run for office again. But if I ran again, I'd be running for President. And, and so what was happening, though - what month did Beau die? 

Before anyone replied, according to the transcript, Biden answered his own question. Several people, including White House Counsel Rachel Cotton, corrected Biden on the year of the death and the year he left the vice presidency, however:

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Oh, God, May 30th -- 

MS. COTTON: 2015. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: 2015. 

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Was it 2015 he had died? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: It was May of 2015. 

PRESIDENT BIDEN: It was 2015. … And what's happened in the meantime is that as -- and Trump gets elected in November of 2017? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: 2016

After that final correction, Biden asked, "All right. So -- why do I have 2017 here?" This appears to be a reference to the photos or documents produced by Hur that were in front of Biden. "That's when you left office, January 2017," White House Counsel Ed Siskel explained. 

While Biden's words did appear to incorrectly place his son's death as occurring in a later year than it actually occurred, it is misleading to paraphrase this interaction as Biden being unable to pinpoint within several years when he son died. The transcript reveals that Biden knew not only the month and day of the death, but also that it occurred toward the end of his vice presidency before Trump was elected — an accurate "pinpoint." 

The gaffe at the center of the claim is just as much about Biden briefly forgetting — while being asked a specific question about his filing system five years earlier while discussing the emotionally charged subject of the death of his son — the fact that a person running for president in 2016 takes office 20 days into the year 2017.

'Would You Like to Correct the Record?'

During Hur's March 12 hearing, several Democratic politicians suggested that he was operating in bad faith. In a clip from the hearing that went viral, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., asked whether Hur would like to correct the record regarding his claim about Biden's recollection of Beau Biden's death:

In response, Hur challenged Dean's characterization of the transcript: 

DEAN: I want to give you a chance since the transcript is out to correct the record on an important point. Very sadly, your report on Page 208 says that Mr. Biden couldn't come up with the date the year of his son Beau Biden's death, when in fact, in the transcript it shows that you asked him the month. And do you know what he said, Mr. Hur? He said, 'Oh God, May 30th.' Would you like to correct the record? His memory was pretty firm on the month and the day. 

HUR: Congresswoman, I don't believe that's correct, with respect to the transcript. 

This exchange is in essence a microcosm of the broader debate about Hur's report and of the perils of focusing granularly on sections of a transcript while ignoring its broader context. In fact, Dean was not correct, because Hur did not pose any question to Biden related to the timing of his son's death. Biden raised that issue himself. Hur, however, was being disingenuous when he suggested that Dean's mischaracterization of that fact ameliorated his omission of Biden's knowledge of the month and day of Beau Biden's death.

A complete reading of the interview shows that Hur's statement about Biden's memory of his son's death was a misleading characterization because Biden did not forget the month or the day that the death occurred and because the transcript shows that Biden placed the event as occurring toward the end of his vice presidency. These facts offer a stark contrast to the assertion that "Biden … could not pinpoint, even within several years, when his son Beau had died."

Sources

02/08/24: President Biden Delivers Remarks. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCT-i-S_I98. Accessed 14 Mar. 2024.

Biden, Joe. Promise Me, Dad. Nov. 2017, https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250171696/promisemedad.

Biden Memory Issues Were a Lie, Probe Transcripts and Special Counsel Robert Hur Testimony Show. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQ4kQXumzbw. Accessed 14 Mar. 2024.

Editorial Board, WSJ. Robert Hur and the Hacks. 12 Mar. 2024, https://www.wsj.com/articles/robert-hur-house-judiciary-testimony-joe-biden-classified-documents-b7e5f155.

Faguy, Ana. "Republicans Call For Biden's Removal By 25th Amendment After Hur Report: What It Is And Why That Won't Happen." Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/anafaguy/2024/02/08/republicans-call-for-bidens-removal-by-25th-amendment-after-hur-report-what-it-is-and-why-that-wont-happen/. Accessed 14 Mar. 2024.

Hur, Robert. Report of the Special Counsel on the Investigation Into Unauthorized Removal, Retention, and Disclosure of Classified Documents Discovered at Locations Including the Penn Biden Center and the Delaware Private Residence of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. . 5 Feb. 2024, https://www.justice.gov/storage/report-from-special-counsel-robert-k-hur-february-2024.pdf.

Liptak, Kevin. "Beau Biden, Son of Vice President and Former Delaware AG, Dies at 46 | CNN Politics." CNN, 31 May 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/05/30/politics/obit-vice-president-son-beau-biden/index.html.

Stein, Perry, and Tyler Pager. "White House-Justice Dept. Tensions High as Hur Prepares to Testify on Hill." Washington Post, 12 Mar. 2024. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2024/03/11/hur-biden-garland-classified-white-house-congress/.

Viser, Matt. "Inside Biden's Five-Hour Face-off with the Special Counsel." Washington Post, 12 Feb. 2024. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2024/02/10/biden-hur-interview/.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.