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Biden defended his mental acuity in this evening's press conference

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden gave a fiery defense of his mental sharpness tonight, and took questions from reporters about a Justice Department report that determined no criminal charges were warranted over old classified documents found in his possession. But the report casts judgment over his memory, and Biden said that aspersion did not belong in the report. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House. Mara, tell us more about what the president said tonight.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president was not happy about this. He did respond to the substance of the report where the bottom line was, he wasn't charged. He said, I did not break the law, period. That was the good part of the report. But he went right into the most damning part of the report, where the special counsel, Robert Hur, described him as a, quote, "sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory," saying it would be hard to convict him because a jury would be sympathetic to him. And here is how Biden responded to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm well-meaning, and I'm an elderly man. And I know what the hell I'm doing.

LIASSON: This is very damning. It is almost as if the special counsel gave a kind of housekeeping - Good Housekeeping seal of approval to Biden's worst problem. It was almost like an official diagnosis. Big majorities of both parties - voters in both parties think the president is too old, and they worry about his mental acuity. And here is the special counsel saying the same thing. This reminded me of James Comey who, at the end of the campaign in 2016 after investigating Hillary Clinton's emails, decided not to charge her. But when he came out to say he wasn't going to charge her, he also criticized her and her handling of classified data. And that really undercut her, and the Clinton people think contributed to her loss.

SHAPIRO: But even as the president angrily defended himself tonight, he seemed to have what some might describe as a senior moment talking about Gaza. Let's listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Initially, the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in.

SHAPIRO: Mara, clear up what we just heard. What did Biden mean there?

LIASSON: What Biden meant was Sisi, the president - the leader of Egypt, didn't want to open up the gate. Now, this is the fourth time since the weekend that he has mixed up foreign leaders. He called French President Macron, former President Mitterrand. Mitterrand is long dead. When he was referring to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he talked about Helmut Kohl. He's also deceased.

Now, the White House was trying to push back against this. The press secretary today went through a list of other people, other leaders who misstate things. Sean Hannity confused Matt Gaetz with Jason Chaffetz. Marla - Donald Trump - she didn't say this, but of course, Donald Trump confused Marla Maples, one of his wives, for E. Jean Carroll. He also confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. But the difference is that one of these missteps, one of these guys who forgets things, Biden, has become a viral meme, and it's become a big problem for him. Trump's misstatements, for some reason, have not risen to that level.

SHAPIRO: The president's political opponents are already trying to make the most of this. What are they saying?

LIASSON: Well, they're saying that he's senile. He's incapable of being held accountable for mishandling classified information. He's clearly unfit for office. This is a problem. I mean, this is what we see in polls over and over again, that people think that he's not fit to serve another term. It also makes it much easier for Republicans to say Kamala Harris is the real candidate because he's not going to last another four years, and she will be the president. He is, of course, 81 years old, the oldest president ever. And now this special counsel report, even though it essentially exonerated him on the facts, it's going to be weaponized by his opponents who are going to say even the special counsel say that Biden is senile.

SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson at the White House tonight. Thank you for your reporting.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.