It came out of the blue. The White House announced that Joe Biden would deliver remarks at 7.45pm – giving the press just 23 minutes to prepare. What the sudden speech would be about, no one knew. The element of surprise and uncertainty was reminiscent of the Donald Trump era.
As it happened, many White House correspondents were at a meeting near the Watergate building about a mile and a half way. The Guardian was among four who jumped in a car, raced across town and sprinted up sedate Pennsylvania Avenue, greeting the Secret Service in a breathless and disheveled state.
Perhaps the press were about to witness history. Was Biden set to announce peace in the Middle East or Ukraine? Was this his Bin Laden moment, a military strike that killed a top terrorist leader? Or after a devastating justice department report said his memory is shot due to old age, was he about to do a Lyndon B Johnson and announce he is not seeking re-election?
Related: Biden defends his memory in surprise speech after special counsel report
Reporters and TV and radio crews gathered in the Diplomatic Reception Room, the site of Franklin Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats”. Above the fireplace was a portrait of George Washington and thick hardback books bearing the names of recent past presidents. The posh, old-fashioned room comes with panoramic French wallpaper showing vistas of America.
After all the hush and hype, Biden emerged at the lectern and did not resign. Far from it; he was in a fighting mood. Biden was responding to the special counsel’s report, welcoming its conclusion that no charges should be brought against him for mishandling classified information. But the president was also combative, emotional and then – not for the first time – took one question too many and paid the price.
Special counsel Robert Hur had described the 81-year-old Democrat’s memory as “hazy”, “fuzzy”, “faulty”, “poor” and having “significant limitations”. Biden commented: “There’s even a reference that I don’t remember” – he paused for a moment and swallowed, as if the words are still hard to say – “when my son died”.
Beau Biden died of cancer in 2015. With barely concealed anger, the president continued: “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. Some of you have commented. I wear since the day he died every single day, the rosary he got from Our Lady of … ”
He reached to show the rosary and appeared to be choking up. “Every Memorial Day we hold a service remembering him, attended by friends and family and the people who loved him. I don’t need anyone, I don’t need anyone to remind me when he passed away.”
Tall, blond and loud, Peter Doocy of the conservative Fox News network, which is pushing the geriatric case against Biden hard, noted that the special counsel called Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. The president parried: “I’m well-meaning and I’m an elderly man and I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president and I put this country back on its feet.”
Doocy pressed: “How bad is your memory and can you continue as president?”
Biden: “My memory is so bad I let you speak.”
Another reporter weighed in: “Do you think your memory has gotten worse, Mr President?”
Biden answered: “My memory is fine. Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president. None of you thought I could pass any of the things I got passed. How did that happen? I guess I just forgot what was going on.”
But soon things started to go off the rails a bit. From a raucous cacophony of reporters’ voices, one emerged to ask: “Mr President, for months when you were asked about your age, you would respond with the words ‘watch me’. Well, many American people have been watching and they have expressed concerns about your age.”
Biden looked cross again. “That is your judgment!” he said, his voice rising as he pointed an accusing finger. “That is your judgment. That is not the judgment of the press” – presumably he meant to say public.
Biden went on to insist: “I’m the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started.”
More questions. More frenetic noise. More grumpy expressions and finger pointing from Biden. “I did not share classified information!” he almost shouted. “Let me answer your question!”
Still, he rounded off with a flourish: “I did not break the law. Period,” and started making his way to the exit. The Biden comms team must have been breathing a huge sigh of relief. A fiery riposte to the critics! No major gaffes! Then imagine their dismay (“Keep walking, don’t turn around, oh my god, he’s going back”) as Biden halted, turned and returned to the lectern, unable to resist a question about hostage negotiations in Gaza.
It was then that, having protested his memory is all good and his age is not an issue, that Biden put his foot in it again, mistakenly referring to Egypt’s leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as “the president of Mexico”. This followed his assertions that in recent days he met François Mitterrand of France and Helmut Kohl of Germany when both were already dead.
Doocy and Fox News had their story after all. Minutes later, the network was running the chyron: “Biden confuses the presidents of Egypt and Mexico.” It followed up with: “Biden raises even more questions about cognitive health after disastrous press conference.”
And it’s still only February.