The special counsel Robert Hur’s contention that Joe Biden suffers from memory problems caused by advanced age prompted delight among the president’s Republican opponents – and pushback from Democrats pointing out how often Donald Trump has his own lapses, and how dangerous they are to the country.
Speaking on MSNBC amid shockwaves from the release of Hur’s report on Biden’s retention of classified information after his time as a senator and as vice-president, Jen Psaki, Biden’s first White House press secretary, emphasised: “The choice in all likelihood here is going to be between two men who are three years apart.”
Already the oldest president ever, Biden is 81 and would be 86 at the end of a second term. Trump, the probable Republican presidential nominee this year, will turn 78 in June.
Biden’s gaffes – including calling the president of Egypt the president of Mexico in the same Thursday remarks in which he angrily attacked Hur – are relentlessly scrutinised.
Related: Special counsel report on Biden a ‘partisan hit job’, Democrats say
To some extent, so are those of Trump – who recently confused Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey. He also confused Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival for the Republican nomination, with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker when Trump sent a mob to attack Congress on 6 January 2021.
But despite Trump’s frequent mistakes, polling has consistently shown that more Americans think Biden is too old than think the same about Trump.
This week, before the release of Hur’s report, the progressive political strategist Rachel Bitecofer said: “Polling data consistently shows that its Biden, not Trump, voters perceive as having mental decline. No, REALLY. The reason is, Republicans have been pounding that false narrative hard since 2020 using [Biden’s] stuttering clips. We need CONSTANT coverage of Trump’s decline across all media outlets to fix that.”
On Thursday, Psaki said Biden and Trump “are both older than I would think a lot of people in the public would like … [but] the choice is ultimately going to be between somebody who – in the Biden campaign, this is what they’ll argue – was guilty of trying to overturn the election, overturn the will of voters, and somebody who was not. And they’re three years apart.
“People have concern about age, have concern about whether Biden’s up to the job … There is an element of that that has existed for years, and some of it was pushed by the right wing effectively … despite the fact that Trump is only a little bit younger.”
The Biden campaign, Psaki added, “need[s] to figure out ways to address that, including having him out in the country, having him out on the trail”.
Psaki’s host, Katy Tur, responded: “I covered Donald Trump really closely [in 2016] and when I see him now, he is a lot different than he was eight years ago. He is not the same candidate that he was.”
That seems evident to most observers – and the issue has not been absent from the Republican primary.
Haley, who made a call for age limits for public office a central plank of her campaign, has said Trump is “just not at the same level” as he was while president.
“Are we really gonna go into a situation where we have wars around the world and we’re trying to prevent war, and we’re gonna have someone who we can or can’t be sure that they’re gonna get confused?” the 51-year-old former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador told CBS last month.
At a New Hampshire rally, she added: “Do we really want to go into an election with two fellas that are gonna be president in their 80s? And that’s not ageism that I’m saying here … when you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this.”
Trump himself has addressed the subject – if by inviting widespread mockery with boasts about acing basic cognitive tests while in the White House.
In New Hampshire last month, Trump told supporters: “I think it was 35, 30 questions. They always show you the first one, like a giraffe, a tiger, or this, or that – a whale. ‘Which one is the whale?’ OK. And that goes on for three or four [questions] and then it gets harder and harder and harder.”
The Canadian creator of the test in question, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, told the Washington Post it had never included a drawing of a whale.
For the Biden campaign, and for Democrats in general, the challenge now is to get more Americans to read such stories.