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I’m With Hur

The former special counsel did not, as some from both parties claim, lie in his testimony.

Robert Hur testifies at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on March 12, 2024. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Hey, 

So last night we did a special Dispatch Live on last week’s editorial, which had elicited a lot of conversation, comments, compliments, and criticism (and if you give me a minute or two I can probably keep the alliteration going). 

I don’t want to wade too deeply into all of that or repeat myself here—not when I can repeat myself elsewhere! But one point I made last night seems worth expanding upon. 

I think Robert Hur is kind of a spirit animal for The Dispatch. I don’t know the guy (Sarah does, and she says he’s a good dude). I only vaguely knew who he was until Attorney General Merrick Garland named him as the special counsel in the Biden classified documents case. 

As you probably know, he submitted a report to Garland explaining why he declined to recommend indicting Biden over his—obvious—mishandling of classified material. This report is required by law, by the way. Hur even took pains to note that the charges against Trump for his—even more obvious—mishandling of classified material were substantially different and more serious than the charges against Biden.

Under normal circumstances, this would endear him to Democrats. But Hur stated another obvious fact: Biden’s age and poor memory would make him difficult to prosecute. As Hur wrote:

We have also considered that, at trial, Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory. Based on our direct interactions with and observations of him, he is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him-by then a former president well into his eighties-of a serious felony that requires a mental state of willfulness.

In response, Democrats, including Biden himself, went ballistic. When Hur testified before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, various Democrats accused him of lying. Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia said that Hur intended to “trash and smear” Biden in an attempt to curry favor with Trump and win a judgeship or high ranking position in the Trump DOJ. This was an actual smear. 

We’ll get to the lying charge in a second. But it’s worth pointing out that the Republicans rhetorically defecated over Hur, too. They accused him of being a swampy protector of Biden. “I want to thank you for the work you did as far as you could,” Rep. Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin said, “but unfortunately you are part of the praetorian guard that guards that swamp out here in Washington, D.C., protecting the elites.” 

I don’t want to take the bait on this “elites” stuff. But just for the record, congressional representatives are elites, too. And, just to hammer home the point, the billionaire celebrity former president of the United States who just secured enough delegates to be the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is an elite as well. 

And that’s sort of the point. At yesterday’s hearing praetorians of two different factions of elites were jostling to protect the respective leaders of those factions. The Democrats behaved like partisan jackasses and so did the Republicans. The Democrats tried to bully Hur into saying that he’d “exonerated” Biden. Republicans tried to bully him into saying Biden was guilty. Hur steadfastly rejected both claims.

Instead, he told the truth as he sees it. 

On truth and opinion.

Let me pause here for an eggheady point.

I use the phrase “tell the truth as I see it” a lot. I consider it to be my own professional and ethical credo. Until the rise of Trump and Trumpism, I didn’t use the phrase a lot because I didn’t think it was all that necessary. But then I saw a lot of people with nominally the same job as me—pundit, commentator, journalist, whatever—lie. A lot. I’ve written and talked about this experience a lot so I don’t think I need to repeat it all now. Suffice it to say that I think telling the truth as you see it is the job of all journalists, whether they’re opinion journalists or straight reporters. How you do that, and by what rules you follow, can differ. But any rules that allow you to deliberately deceive aren’t journalistic rules. Entertainers and activists can make stuff up, journalists can’t—or I should say, shouldn’t. Opinion journalists can obviously offer opinions, but if they’re offering opinions they don’t actually believe are true—to pander to a politician or to an audience—they’ve wandered outside the borders of journalism. 

Colloquially, “tell the truth as I see it” isn’t very different from, say, offering my “honest opinion.” (This is pretty much the opposite of the relativistic and romantic codswallop “my truth.”) And in most everyday cases, I think they’re probably interchangeable. But in my head at least, I see them differently. Telling the truth feels different than merely offering an opinion, because opinions don’t necessarily require a lot of fact-finding or rigorous thinking. Everyone has opinions. But a lot of those opinions are fairly free-floating, untethered from serious thinking and unconstrained by the ballast of facts. Telling the truth is different than offering an opinion. Because if you think you’ve actually got a handle on what the actual truth is, other people’s contrary opinions are, as a matter of logic, necessarily wrong. For instance, when I say that Dominion didn’t steal the election for Biden by switching millions of votes, I don’t think I’m merely offering an opinion. I think I’m telling the truth as revealed by a vast amount of evidence and the application of reason. That means people with a different opinion are wrong. It also means that some people aren’t merely wrong, they’re actually lying. 

I’m the first to admit there’s a lot of shades of gray here. Not every dispute is as black and white. And that’s why I say, “tell the truth as I see it.” The “as I see it” allows for the possibility that I’m seeing things wrong or incompletely. It’s a concession to epistemological humility. I’m always open to new facts. I’m not always open to new opinions if they don’t come with new facts and arguments attached. Again, just to illustrate the point, I believe Hitler was a bad person, 9/11 wasn’t an inside job, America put a man on the moon, etc. I’m not open to any contrary opinions on these conclusions unless they come with some really startling new facts and arguments. 

This, by the way, dovetails with my philosophical and ideological conservatism. I have strong views about all sorts of moral and empirical questions. I think the facts and the lessons of history are on my side. I’m open to the idea that some of my positions are mere opinions because the facts they depend on are less clear or because other facts I am unaware or appreciative of lead to different philosophical or ideological conclusions. In short, I think some things are simply the truth while others may just be my opinions of the truth. 

Over the weekend, I gave a talk on how we live in a philodoxical age. Philodoxy means “love of opinion,” specifically one’s own opinion. Philosophy means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is always fact-dependent, opinion is only occasionally so. Hot take culture is the gateway drug to conspiratorial delusion, because it celebrates shock, novelty, and transgressiveness over fact and reason. 

But we can talk more about that later. Let’s get back to Hur, The Dispatch’s spirit animal of the week. 

When I say that he told the truth as he sees it, I mean he wasn’t offering some glib opinion—that’s what his inquisitors were doing. Hur and his team interviewed the president and numerous other people—under oath. They searched his home, they consulted the relevant law, they adhered to the rules of evidence. And after this process, he wrote a report that pissed off pretty much every hyper-partisan out there. You can call his conclusions mere opinion if you like, but it was a deeply informed opinion made all the more valid because it came at a cost. 

None of this, by the way, is to say that Hur was obviously right in his decision. I’ve heard legal arguments on both sides that have merit. And, personally, I think politicians should be charged with these sorts of crimes whenever there’s a remotely plausible legal case for doing so. It is un-republican to hold leaders less accountable than the rank-and-file for these sorts of offenses. But we did not get serious arguments about the law yesterday, we got partisan theater.

Which brings me to the charge that Hur lied. Let’s start with what I think is a true statement. Joe Biden is an “elderly man with a poor memory.” Or to be more humble, the claim that Biden is an elderly man is a statement of fact. He is eight years past the average life expectancy of an American male. If that doesn’t make him elderly, then I do not know what does. He’s just released new ads admitting that he’s old. 

I think he has a poor memory. We can debate what constitutes “poor,” but given his long history of faulty memory—even when he wasn’t elderly—I don’t think it’s worth debating a lot. 

But I will provide one example. When Robert Hur’s report was publicly released—by the attorney general, not Hur—Biden gave a press conference in which he angrily claimed that Hur had broached the subject of Beau Biden’s death. 

“I know there’s some attention paid to some language in the report about my recollection of events.  There’s even a reference that I don’t remember when my son died. How in the hell dare he raise that? Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself it wasn’t any of their damn business.”

But here’s the problem: Biden’s memory of the interview  is poor, given that he was the one who brought up the date of Beau’s death in the first place. Or, he could have been lying. 

But it really doesn’t matter because—and this is just my opinion—all of the Democrats freaking out over the claim that Biden is an elderly man with a poor memory almost surely believe that Biden is—wait for it—an elderly man with a poor memory. Indeed, that is why they are freaking out—to shut down that conversation and make the charge radioactive. 

That’s how I see the clean-up operation over the thrust of the transcript as so revealing. Across the non-Fox News mainstream media, reporters are trying to “contextualize” the claim that Biden has a poor memory. Context is good. But if you just read the transcript you see this (emphasis mine):

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, um, . . . I, I, I, I, I don’t know. This is, what, 2017, 2018, that area?

MR. HUR: Yes, sir.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Remember, in this timeframe, my son is — either been deployed or is dying, and, so it was — and by the way, there were still a lot of people at the time when I got out of the Senate that were encouraging me to run in this period, except the President [Obama]. I’m not—and not a mean thing to say. He just thought that she [Hillary Clinton] had a better shot of winning the presidency than I did. And so I hadn’t, I hadn’t at this point — even though I’m at Penn [his post-presidential think tank], 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? Oh, God, May 30th

MS. COTTON: 2015.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: 2015.

PRESIDENT BIDEN: Was it 2015 he died?

I am totally open to the idea that this isn’t the searing indictment of his memory that some Biden haters want it to be. Indeed, this passage is becoming the “What color is this dress?” controversy of 2024. I’m also extremely sympathetic, thanks to personal experience, to the tricks of memory that swirl around the deaths of loved ones. But the only relevant question here is, “How would this exchange—and exchanges like it—look to a jury in a criminal trial of a ‘sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man’?” If you think a jury would say, “Biden’s memory is a steel trap” based on a performance like this, fine. But come on. Is Hur’s professional and quite humane reading really so outrageous? 

What Biden defenders are mad at is that Hur made a high-stakes equivalent of a Kinsley gaffe—telling impolitic truth—that inconvenienced the narratives of both parties. 

And that’s why I am with Hur. It’s also why I think it’s relevant to the debate over The Dispatch’s editorial. We are stuck with a terrible choice between two presidential candidates. That’s the truth as we see it. We didn’t tell people how to respond to this truth, because that’s not what the editorial was about. That made a lot of people angry. 

I don’t want to speak for The Dispatch outside the four corners of the editorial, so I’ll stop using “we” here and just say that I don’t think that just because both options are bad that means they are equally bad. If presented with a choice between financial bankruptcy and death by torture, it is objectively true that both choices are bad. That doesn’t mean they are the same or equally undesirable. It’s not like my views—or the views of most of my colleagues—on Donald Trump are some impenetrable mystery; barring some truly shocking new facts, I will never vote for Donald Trump or deny his unfitness for office. But you can shout “binary choice!” at me until you’re blue in the face—you’re not going to get me to say I think Biden is a good choice. 

After eight years of insisting—often in uncomfortably self-righteous terms—that I won’t carry water for the Republican Party, I’m not remotely interested in carrying water for the Democratic Party because, among other reasons, that’s not my job. Both the Democrats and the Republicans in the Hur hearing lied and distorted the truth towards partisan ends. That’s to be expected from partisans and politicians, alas. But I’d like to think that’s not to be expected from me—or The Dispatch

I’d rather just tell the truth as I see it. 

Of course, opinions vary on all of this, and I’m happy to have those arguments. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.