In January 2023, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate President Biden’s handling of classified documents to avoid any perception that he was protecting his boss entering an election year.
The man Mr. Garland tapped for the job, Robert K. Hur, has not been quite as cautious.
On Thursday, Mr. Hur, 50, a former Justice Department official in the Trump administration, dropped a 345-page political bomb into the middle of the 2024 campaign, the final report summing up his investigation. The document, written in unvarnished prose, is an excruciatingly detailed and seemingly subjective assessment of Mr. Biden’s faulty memory that overshadowed his conclusion: Mr. Biden, unlike former President Donald J. Trump, should not face criminal charges.
The Hur report underlines the challenges of deploying special counsels, which are intended to shield prosecutors from political meddling, but often result in the release of negative information about high-profile targets who have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing. It also showed the complicated balance of the job — navigating a polarized environment that leaves little option but to expansively explain the rationale for any decision.
Mr. Hur is no stranger to high-wire investigations and legal conflict. Under the Trump administration, he spent 11 months as the top aide to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein — as Mr. Rosenstein oversaw the appointment of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to investigate Mr. Trump’s connections to Russia.
Mr. Hur’s critics say he broke through guardrails intended to avoid tarnishing politicians facing tough elections. That was perhaps best exemplified by the F.B.I. director James B. Comey’s public condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of government secrets, delivered in the months before the 2016 election.
Among the thousands of sentences in the Hur report, one juts out like a dagger: “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview with him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” he writes.
It is not unusual for witnesses in federal cases to cite their faulty recollections, particularly about events occurring years earlier, in interviews with investigators. But Mr. Hur included references to Mr. Biden’s memory that did not relate directly to retention of classified documents — including the president’s struggle to recall the year (2015) when his son Beau died, a shattering event in his life.
Those revelations, immediately seized upon by Trump supporters, were seemingly at odds with the purview of Mr. Hur’s job as special counsel, according to critics.
“Special Counsel Hur report on Biden classified documents issues contains way too many gratuitous remarks and is flatly inconsistent with long standing DOJ traditions,” Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s attorney general, wrote on social media, reflecting a widening sense that the disclosure inflicted political damage on the president.
Anthony Coley, Mr. Garland’s spokesman when Mr. Hur was appointed, said the focus on Mr. Biden’s memory crossed a line.
“He was supposed to be an umpire calling balls and strikes,” said Mr. Coley, who interacted with Mr. Hur at the department. “But the editorializing — the excessive, unnecessary commentary about an uncharged individual — felt like political potshots.”
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.
Current and former department officials said Mr. Hur’s narrative was probably motivated by self-preservation. He needed to justify his decision not to charge Mr. Biden when the government had indicted Mr. Trump for similar, albeit far more serious, transgressions, they said. (Mr. Hur said Mr. Biden shared the content of his handwritten notebooks, which contained references to classified material, with his ghostwriter.)
And while he has mostly operated in private, that will soon end. Mr. Hur is expected to testify about his findings before Congress, where Republicans will almost certainly accuse him of applying a “two-tiered” standard of justice that favored Mr. Biden and punished Mr. Trump.
Mr. Garland, for his part, could have redacted portions of the report that he deemed inappropriate, or were flagged for national security concerns.
But he chose not to, in keeping with the practice of attorneys general not to intervene with special counsels, and because department officials think the material would be aired during Mr. Hur’s congressional testimony anyway, according to a person familiar with their thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the investigation.
The report was likely to do little to improve Mr. Garland’s standing among members of Mr. Biden’s inner circle, who have been frustrated by his deliberative approach to the Trump investigations.
The federal regulations governing special counsels include few explicit instructions on how a final report should be drafted.
The firestorm over Mr. Hur’s findings also reflected serious, perhaps irreconcilable, problems with department rules governing special counsels, independent investigators intended to shield political appointees from accusations of political interference.
Justice Department practice dictates that prosecutors “speak through filings” — criminal complaints filed against defendants, rather than in public statements.
But if a special counsel chooses not to indict someone, they are, in a sense, obligated to disclose unflattering behavior that falls short of criminality to explain why they have not brought charges, as was the case with Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Mr. Trump’s connections to Russia.
Mr. Hur’s executive summary, which contains many of the most quotable characterizations about Mr. Biden’s memory and age, reads like a standard internal department memo drafted to justify a non-prosecution decision, former prosecutors said. Those are typically circulated inside the department and provide an unvarnished assessment of the likelihood of a case passing muster with a jury.
But Bob Bauer, Mr. Biden’s personal lawyer, thought Mr. Hur went over the line, and accused him of disregarding Justice Department “regulations and norms” and compared the special counsel’s conduct to that of Mr. Comey, who came under fire over his sharp criticism of Mrs. Clinton.
In a letter included in the appendix of the report, Mr. Biden’s lawyers called the inclusion of discussion of Mr. Biden’s memory “pejorative.” The five-hour interview with the president, they noted, had taken place shortly after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel, after Mr. Biden had spent hours on the phone with foreign leaders.
Mr. Hur was Mr. Trump’s pick to run the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, where he earned praise from the state’s Democratic senators for his handling of violent crime and public corruption cases.
Mr. Hur, who has been listed as a registered Republican in Maryland, completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard and received a law degree from Stanford.
But it was his time working with Mr. Rosenstein, then the deputy attorney general, that may have best prepared him for his current role.
Mr. Hur helped run the day-to-day operations of the department during a period of major tumult: From mid-2017 to late 2018, Mr. Rosenstein was under threat of being fired by Mr. Trump over his decision to appoint Mr. Mueller, which the president considered a personal betrayal.
“We were coming under tremendous criticism from the commentators — and the president — and Rob kept his head down, pushed ahead and never lost his sense of humor,” Mr. Rosenstein said in an interview after Mr. Hur’s appointment was announced.
“Every special counsel starts with a sterling reputation, but no one finishes up that way,” he said at the time.