8 min read

The Biden age questions return

Plus, more details on Biden’s immigration executive order and his efforts to seal a Middle East ceasefire.
The Biden age questions return
(Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, June 5, 2024. Election Day is 153 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Let’s start this morning by getting you up to speed on three key topics: President Biden’s executive action on the border, the U.S. efforts to ink a ceasefire agreement in the Middle East, and a new big story on Biden’s age.

1. Biden’s border order

The U.S.-Mexico border was largely shut down to migrants seeking asylum at 12:01 a.m. ET this morning, as a new executive order from President Biden took effect.

Biden’s order, which he announced yesterday in a White House address, allows the U.S. to stop processing asylum claims made by migrants crossing the border illegally when the daily average for illegal border crossings surpasses 2,500. According to CNN, officials have “recently been arresting just under 4,000 migrants daily at the US-Mexico border,” meaning the order went into effect immediately. It will be lifted when the daily average of illegal crossings dips down below 1,500.

Migrants who make appointments at a point of entry to seek asylum — as opposed to those who request asylum after being arrested for crossing the border illegally — will be exempt from the order, as will unaccompanied children, some victims of trafficking, and those facing imminent threats to their health or safety. Currently, migrants who cross illegally and claim asylum are released into the U.S. to wait for a court date; under the new policy, they will automatically be returned to Mexico unless they fall into an exempt category.

“Frankly, I would have preferred to address this issue through bipartisan legislation, because that’s the only way to actually get the kind of system we have now — that’s broken — fixed, to hire more Border Patrol agents, more asylum officers, more judges,” Biden said Tuesday. “But Republicans have left me with no choice.” A bipartisan border deal has now been twice defeated by Senate Republicans, most recently last month. (The bipartisan bill would have allowed the president to shut down the border when illegal crossings exceeded an average of 4,000 per day, making this order even stricter.)

Biden’s order was met with disapproval by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as Republicans bashed it as “too little, too late” and progressive Democrats compared it to similar polices implemented by former President Donald Trump. Biden’s tenure has been marked by record-breaking numbers of crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border, a key vulnerability for the president heading into his rematch with Trump this November.

2. Full-court press for ceasefire

The Biden administration has launched an intense “lobbying blitz” encouraging Arab nations to call on Hamas to accept Israel’s recent ceasefire proposal, according to the Associated Press.

Since Friday, the AP notes, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with the foreign ministers of Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Algeria to discuss the ceasefire proposal, while President Biden has spoken with the emir of Qatar. Working to build international pressure behind the proposal, the U.S. has also released joint statements with Egypt and Qatar, its fellow mediators in the negotiations, and with the other leaders of the Group of Seven. The U.S. is also circulating a draft United Nations Security Council resolution to support the proposal as well.

Qatar transmitted the Israeli proposal — which calls for a six-week ceasefire while Israeli hostages are released and humanitarian aid is ramped up, followed by a multi-phase roadmap to the “permanent cessation of hostilities” — to Hamas last week. Hamas initially offered a positive reaction, although a spokesman said yesterday that the proposal does not include a firm enough route to a permanent ceasefire.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the U.S. will “regard a formal response [from Hamas] as one that gets conveyed to the Qataris,” adding: “We have not gotten that yet.” CIA Director Bill Burns, who has played a key role in previous ceasefire talks, is set to travel to the Middle East today to continue pushing for a deal.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced himself from the proposal amid domestic political pressure, although he did empower negotiators to formally offer it to Hamas. Asked by Time magazine in a recent interview whether Netanyahu is prolonging the war for his own political survival, Biden replied: “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.” (Asked yesterday whether Netanyahu is “playing politics” with the war, Biden said: “I don’t think so. He’s trying to work out a serious problem he has.”)

Two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition endorsed the ceasefire proposal yesterday, while a pair of far-right ministers have pledged to leave the coalition if it is adopted. In total, 70 members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset — a majority — have backed the proposal.

A conservative leader whose governing coalition could fall apart if he advances a policy backed by a majority of lawmakers, but opposed by his right-wing allies, forcing him to rely on support from the opposition party to pass it? Doesn’t sound familiar at all.

3. WSJ revives the Biden age questions

The Wall Street Journal is out with a blockbuster story on President Biden’s age and performance behind the scenes.

Relying on interviews with more than 45 people from across the political spectrum, the Journal paints a portrait of an 81-year-old president who “appears slower” than in years past and who has “both good moments and bad ones.”

Here’s how the piece opens:

When President Biden met with congressional leaders in the West Wing in January to negotiate a Ukraine funding deal, he spoke so softly at times that some participants struggled to hear him, according to five people familiar with the meeting. He read from notes to make obvious points, paused for extended periods and sometimes closed his eyes for so long that some in the room wondered whether he had tuned out.

In a February one-on-one chat in the Oval Office with House Speaker Mike Johnson, the president said a recent policy change by his administration that jeopardizes some big energy projects was just a study, according to six people told at the time about what Johnson said had happened. Johnson worried the president’s memory had slipped about the details of his own policy.

Last year, when Biden was negotiating with House Republicans to lift the debt ceiling, his demeanor and command of the details seemed to shift from one day to the next, according to then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and two others familiar with the talks. On some days, he had loose and spontaneous exchanges with Republicans, and on others he mumbled and appeared to rely on notes.

The White House denied the allegations in the piece, charging that they came largely from Republican lawmakers. Here’s a free link to the article so you can read it and judge for yourself.

Personally — whether or not the allegations made by Johnson or McCarthy are true — I was struck most by the White House’s response to the piece. According to the piece, Biden’s aides “kept close tabs” on the Journal’s interviews with Democratic lawmakers. “After the offices of several Democrats shared with the White House either a recording of an interview or details about what was asked, some of those lawmakers spoke to the Journal a second time and once again emphasized Biden’s strengths,” the reporters added.

That’s a peek into the reporting process we don’t always get — and a clear sign of how sensitive the White House is to any suggestion that Biden is slipping. Biden’s inner circle is clearly on high alert for any stories about his age, aware of how much of a vulnerability it poses for him in the fall. I’ll be curious to see whether the WSJ piece is a one-off — or whether it breaks the seal and leads to more stories like this coming out in the next few weeks.

As for whether the narrative it paints is a correct one, the piece reminded me of Jon Stewart’s quip from February, in response to Biden officials constantly bragging to reporters about Biden’s mastery of detail behind closed doors: “If you’re telling us behind the scenes, he is sharp and full of energy and on top of it and really in control and leading, you should film that. That would be good to show to people.”

As the WSJ noted, Biden has given fewer interviews or press conferences than any modern president, and has not held a town hall since 2021, the exact type of venues that would allow Americans to judge Biden’s acuity for themselves. The best upcoming opportunity to do so will come on June 26, when Biden is scheduled to hold his first debate with Trump on CNN.

Speaking of Trump, I thought these two paragraphs from the Journal did a good job of laying out the concerns about mental acuity that have dogged both candidates:

In January, [Biden] mixed up two of his Hispanic cabinet secretaries, Alejandro Mayorkas and Xavier Becerra. During a February fundraiser in New York, he recounted speaking to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—who died in 2017—at the 2021 Group of Seven meeting. That same month, at a different fundraiser, he said that during the 2021 G-7 summit he had spoken to former French President François Mitterrand, who died in 1996.

Trump, for his part, mixed up Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential primary opponent, and House speaker emeritus Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, during a January speech. At a rally in Virginia in March, he referred to Biden as Barack Obama when commenting on Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s opinion of U.S. leadership. During his criminal trial in New York in May, he closed his eyes for extended periods.

It’s fairly striking that you could build a compelling case questioning the mental acuity of either candidate for president, both of whom are in their late 70s or early 80s. No wonder almost half of Americans would like to see both candidates replaced on the ballot.

Graphic by the Pew Research Center

More news to know.

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden touched down in Paris, France, early this morning, ahead of tomorrow’s ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

  • Vice President Harris will deliver remarks at a pair of political events in Oakland, California.

Congress: The Senate will hold a procedural vote on the Right to Contraception Act, a Democratic bill to guarantee a federal right for Americans to buy and use birth control pills, the plan B pill, condoms and other forms of contraception. The chamber will also vote to confirm a D.C. local judge and to advance a nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the African Union.

Courts: Hunter Biden’s trial will continue in Delaware. Hallie Biden, Beau Biden’s widow who was romantically linked to Hunter after Beau’s death, could testify as early as today.

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