Biden’s lapses are increasingly common, according to some of those in the room

President Joe Biden takes part in a conversation with former U.S. President Barack Obama and late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel during a star-studded campaign fundraiser in June at the Peacock Theater in Los Angeles, Calif. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo)

President Joe Biden during the CNN presidential debate with former President Donald Trump Thursday in Atlanta Ga. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

In the weeks and months before President Joe Biden’s politically devastating performance on the debate stage in Atlanta, several current and former officials and others who encountered him behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations.

Like many people his age, Biden, 81, has long experienced instances in which he mangled a sentence, forgot a name or mixed up a few facts, even though he could be sharp and engaged most of the time. But in interviews, people in the room with him more recently said that the lapses seemed to be growing more frequent, more pronounced and more worrisome.


The uncomfortable occurrences were not predictable, but seemed more likely when he was in a large crowd or tired after a particularly bruising schedule. In the 23 days leading up to the debate against former President Donald Trump, Biden jetted across the Atlantic Ocean twice for meetings with foreign leaders and then flew from Italy to California for a splashy fundraiser, maintaining a grueling pace that exhausted even much younger aides.

Biden was drained enough from the back-to-back trips to Europe that his team cut his planned debate preparation by two days so he could rest at his house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, before joining advisers at Camp David for rehearsals. The preparations, which took place over six days, never started before 11 a.m. and Biden was given time for an afternoon nap each day, according to a person familiar with the process.

Referring to the start time, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said “the president was working well before then, after exercising.”

The recent moments of disorientation generated concern among advisers and allies alike. He seemed confused at points during a D-Day anniversary ceremony in France on June 6. The next day, he misstated the purpose of a new tranche of military aid to Ukraine when meeting with its president.

On June 10, he appeared to freeze up at an early celebration of the Juneteenth holiday. On June 18, his soft-spoken tone and brief struggle to summon the name of his homeland security secretary at an immigration event unnerved some of his allies at the event, who traded alarmed looks and later described themselves as “shaken up,” as one put it. Biden recovered, and named Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

He is certainly not that way all the time. In the days since the debate debacle, aides and others who encountered him, including foreign officials, described him as being in good shape — alert, coherent and capable, engaged in complicated and important discussions and managing volatile crises. They cited example after example in cases where critical national security issues were on the line.

Aides present in the Situation Room the night that Iran hurled a barrage of missiles and drones at Israel portrayed a president in commanding form, lecturing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone to avoid a retaliatory escalation that would have inflamed the Middle East. “Let me be crystal clear,” Biden said. “If you launch a big attack on Iran, you’re on your own.”

Netanyahu pushed back hard, citing the need to respond in kind to deter future attacks. “You do this,” Biden said forcefully, “and I’m out.” Ultimately, the aides noted, Netanyahu scaled back his response.

This account is based on interviews with current and former White House aides, political advisers, administration officials, foreign diplomats, domestic allies and financial donors who saw Biden in the last few weeks. In most cases, they spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

White House officials have said the president is in excellent shape and that his debate performance, while disappointing, was an aberration. Kevin C. O’Connor, the White House physician, said as recently as February that despite minor ailments such as sleep apnea and peripheral neuropathy in his feet, the president was “fit for duty.”

“He’s inquisitive. Focused. He remembers. He’s sharp,” said Neera Tanden, the president’s domestic policy adviser. In briefings, she said, “he will ask you a tough question and he will say, ‘How does this relate to an average person?’ And if you haven’t thought of that in that time, you have to come back to him.”

But by many accounts, as evidenced by video footage, observation and interviews, Biden is not the same today as he was even when he took office 3 1/2 years ago. The White House regularly releases corrected transcripts of his remarks, in which he frequently mixes up places, people or dates. The administration did so in the days after the debate, when Biden mixed up the countries of France and Italy when talking about war veterans at an East Hampton fundraiser.

Last week’s debate prompted some around him to express concern that the decline had accelerated lately. Several advisers and current and former administration officials who see Biden regularly but not every day or week said they were stunned by his debate performance because it was the worst they had ever seen him.

“You don’t have to be sitting in an Oval Office meeting with Joe Biden to recognize there’s been a slowdown in the past two years. There’s a visible difference,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “I’ve been amazed on one hand,” said Brinkley, who has not seen the president in person in a year. “The president can zip around the country like he does. But the White House may only be showing the Biden they want us to see.”

Trump, 78, has also shown signs of slipping over the years since he was first elected to the White House. He often confuses names and details and makes statements that are incoherent. He maintains a lighter public schedule than Biden, does not exercise and repeatedly appeared to fall asleep in the middle of his recent hush money trial. His campaign has released only a three-paragraph health summary. Voters have expressed concern about his age as well, but not to the same degree as Biden’s.

The picture that emerges from recent interviews about Biden is one of a president under stress — hardly unusual — as he tried to juggle nervous international partners, a recalcitrant ally whose continued war against Hamas was creating yet another threat to a second term and a family crisis with his own son, who was convicted of criminal charges that could send him to prison.

By necessity, it is an incomplete picture. As Biden has aged, the White House has limited his encounters with reporters. As of Sunday, Biden had granted fewer interviews than any president of the modern era and fewer news conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan, according to statistics compiled by Martha Kumar, a longtime scholar of presidential communication.

On the occasions that Biden has chosen to speak with reporters on short notice, it has not always gone well. In February, he angrily hit back against a special counsel’s report on his handling of classified documents, in which the special counsel, Robert K. Hur, characterized the president as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” The furious president defended himself and his memory to reporters but referred to President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt as the “president of Mexico” in the process.

But those 23 days before Biden met Trump on the television stage in Atlanta may be viewed by historians as the most critical three weeks in a consequential presidency.

Biden’s trips to Europe were marked by moments of sharpness in important meetings — including a complex session on diverting income from Russian assets to aid Ukraine — mixed with occasional blank-stared confusion, according to people who met with him. At some points, he seemed perfectly on top of his game, at others a little lost.

In Normandy, he met former soldiers brought to France by a veterans’ group. One American who attended said Biden’s eyes seemed glazed and it appeared that people had to lead him.

During a meeting the next day with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Biden spoke so softly it was almost impossible to hear and said a new burst of aid was meant to reconstruct the country’s electric grid when it was not.

But when it came time for the president’s own speech on D-Day, he delivered it forcefully and clearly, gathering momentum and ending on a vigorous note. It was a reminder that, much like during the State of the Union address earlier in the year, he often rises to big occasions and once he gets the rhythm of a speech, adrenaline appears to kick in.

After several days in France, Biden flew home briefly and dealt with the family crisis of his son’s conviction. He hosted an early concert marking the Juneteenth holiday where he was spotted standing stiffly during a musical performance. One person who sat close to the president said that he had a “dazed and confused” expression during much of the event. This person said Biden had shown a “sharp decline” since a meeting only weeks earlier.

After just a couple of days at home, Biden turned around and flew back to Europe, this time to Italy for a summit of the Group of 7 leaders. Throughout the meetings, the pattern was the same, according to senior officials who attended.

Since the debate, Biden has tried to demonstrate that his trouble articulating himself that evening was not indicative of a larger problem. He gave a robust speech at a campaign rally the next day and attended a string of fundraisers where he hoped to reassure nervous donors.

“He gave a strong speech, he didn’t stumble or mumble or look confused in any way,” said Judith Hope, the former chair of the New York State Democratic Party, who attended a fundraiser in East Hampton on Saturday. “He was his old Uncle Joe self.”

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