WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was on the way to a seafood spot near the beach for a vacation dinner, when his predecessor, Donald Trump, was indicted for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Trump decried “another fake indictment” on his social media platform Truth Social. Biden ended his night in Rehoboth Beach, Del. with first lady Jill Biden watching the Hollywood hit film “Oppenheimer” before an evening stroll along the water.
The striking split screen emphasizes the way the White House and Biden campaign are approaching a potentially unprecedented scenario: running against a former Republican president whose been indicted three times and who is accusing Biden of ordering the prosecution.
The plan for now: Stay as far away as possible from Trump’s legal fights — even as multiple trials are on course to collide with the 2024 election.
“There’s a thing in our business called the responsive court,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s 2020 campaign pollsters, “where sometimes it’s stronger when people draw their own conclusions than when you say the conclusion for them. And I think this is that case.”
Rather than being prodded into addressing Trump’s accusations of election interference, the Biden campaign is keeping its head down, focused on behind-the-scenes activities like fundraising, building up its data machine and installing staff for the campaign headquarters in Biden’s home of Wilmington, Delaware.
“The Biden campaign is clearly adopting a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race attitude,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist. “They have a good story to tell, they’re going to go tell it, and they’re watching the other side light themselves on fire.”
A story too big to ignore?
As Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, begins to make his case for four more years, the candidate and campaign aren’t saying anything about Trump’s legal troubles or the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol at the center of Trump’s third indictment.
That Biden isn’t engaging on Trump’s three indictments − with a fourth perhaps coming this month in Georgia − is not surprising. Biden weighing in on any of the cases would only fuel claims by Republicans that he and his appointed attorney general, Merrick Garland, are trying to stop Trump, the well-established Republican primary frontrunner, from winning the 2024 presidential election, legal experts say.
Biden promised an independent Justice Department after Trump blurred those lines during his time in the White House − and it’s a commitment that Biden’s campaign says the president takes seriously and intends to keep. The White House on Friday declined to comment on the Department of Justice’s appointment of a special counsel in Hunter Biden’s case.
Yet the Biden campaign faces a tightrope not to engage in Trump’s legal matters during the campaign while also making 2024 a “choice election” that includes a contest over character and a robust defense of American democracy during a possible rematch against Trump.
Kristy Parker, a former federal prosecutor who was a deputy chief in the criminal section DOJ’s civil rights division, said Biden should avoid of making comments about anything that has a connection to evidence that might be presented in court or the defenses that Trump and his attorneys are raising.
“It’s important for those things to play out in the court proceedings and for the President of the United States to not be doing anything that could conceivably impact a trial,” said Parker, who is counsel for the group Protect Democracy. “He’s just going to want to, and should, steer pretty far clear of anything that relates to the ongoing legal proceedings.”
Biden announced his reelection bid in April with a video that opened with imagery of flag-waving, Trump supporters at the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. He argued “the battle for the soul of the nation” isn’t over. It was a not-so-subtle nod at the divisive politics of Trump.
The temptation to fire back at Trump over his legal woes could mount further as House Republicans accelerate investigations into the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter Biden with threats to open an impeachment inquiry into the president.
“Why hesitate to mention the elephant in the room that’s in handcuffs?” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, referring to Trump’s legal troubles. “It’s just too big a story to ignore. And it’s too big a reminder to not use in a campaign.”
Cohen added: “Because regardless what Joe Biden says or does, or doesn’t say or doesn’t do, Republicans are still going to claim that all of these charges against Donald Trump are politically motivated.”
Parker said Biden can talk about January 6 and defend democracy without crossing the line by talking in broad terms about America’s institutions and how they are supposed to behave and even Trump’s suggestion that he could seek revenge on Special Counsel Jack Smith and the DOJ attorneys who are prosecuting him.
“You can certainly say, we should have peaceful transfers of power, we should accept the results of elections, without talking in specifics,” Parker said. “Like, we shouldn’t have insurrections, what happened on January 6 is a thing we should never see again. I think you can talk in those general terms without talking about the charges in the case or the ongoing prosecutions.”
The economy and abortion at center of 2024 playbook
With the 2024 general election still 15 months away, Biden and his campaign are refusing to veer off course by commenting on the drama surrounding Trump’s court proceedings, which is being covered extensively in the media and voters already know about.
Instead, the Biden campaign is doubling down on an economic case against Trump, arguing that Biden has delivered on Trump’s unfulfilled promise to reinvigorate domestic manufacturing.
Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz pointed to Trump’s policy agenda, not his legal troubles, in a statement, arguing that “Like every Republican running for president, Donald Trump is running on an extreme, unpopular agenda.”
“As we saw in the midterms and continue to see in down-ballot races in 2023, Americans reject the agenda Donald Trump embodies. President Biden will continue to campaign for our freedoms, for our middle class, and for our democracy − these are the issues Americans outside the beltway continue to head to the ballot box on.”
Since Trump’s third indictment came down last week, Biden has pushed his “Bidenomics” economic message during a trip to the Southwest with stops in Arizona and New Mexico and visited Utah for the one-year anniversary of the PACT Act, which expanded benefits for veterans. The campaign this week rolled out endorsements from a coalition of gun control advocacy groups.
Biden has also largely ignored reporters, allowing him to avoid questions about Trump’s latest indictment and his son Hunter business ventures, and his press secretary has taken questions at just one formal engagement with the press.
“I never talked business with anybody,” a visibly upset Biden told a reporter Wednesday when asked about testimony from one of Hunter Biden’s associates in the Oversight House Committee’s investigation.
Most of Biden’s official White House travel has been aimed at turning around perceptions about the economy, with Biden stressing his administration’s efforts to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, as he works to get credit for inflation that has cooled down, a booming jobs market and historically low unemployment.
Yet there remains a major disconnect with most Americans. A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Thursday showed 54% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, while only 40% approve.
Rosenberg said the economy is likely to be the No. 1 issue in the election as it has been in most previous presidential races.
“Biden’s not where he needs to be there. He’s got work to do there,” he said. “But it’s doable work. Because the economy is actually better today. We are better off today as a country.”
Democrats also plan to put abortion at the center of the general election that will take place more than two years after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ruled against a constitutional right to abortion. The issue helped Democrats overcome headwinds during last year’s midterm elections and exceed expectations. Biden’s campaign says that Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to take the lead in speaking out in favor of reproductive rights at events around the country.
Biden seized on Tuesday’s defeat of an amendment in Ohio that would have made it harder for voters to protect abortion access via referendum, declaring “tonight democracy won.”
‘The indictments speak for themselves’
Outside of aggressive fundraising, Biden has ran a low-key campaign since announcing his reelection bid in April, holding no major political events ahead of next year’s Democratic presidential primary contests.
The Biden campaign spent just $1.1 million − a paltry sum by campaign standards − during the second quarter that ended June 30, saving resources to build a massive campaign war chest of $77 million while Republican candidates spend heavily to introduce themselves to voters and attack each other during their primary.
The president is expected to conduct a more visible campaign in the fall − but Democrats say voters should not brace for Biden to bring up the legal troubles of his top political rival.
Lake, who conducts polling for the Democratic National Committee, said Trump’s indictments paint a stronger picture when discussed in the media than by the campaign.
She said she held a focus group with prospective voters on the night of Trump’s indictment for conspiring to overturn his election loss to Biden and the response was “off the charts” when Trump’s criminal charges were described as a “conspiracy against voting rights and having every vote count.”
“People were just furious at that,” Lake said. “So I think the indictments speak for themselves.”
Reach Joey Garrison on X @joeygarrison and Francesca Chambers @fran_chambers.