A barrage of state and federal criminal charges leveled against your main political rival should be good news for any democratic leader facing reelection, but Donald Trump’s legal woes present U.S. President Joe Biden with a unique challenge in the months ahead, political strategists say.
Biden has so far remained mum as his Republican predecessor was charged with 91 felony counts in four indictments this year related to paying hush money to a porn star, unlawfully keeping classified documents and attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Don’t expect any change, Biden advisers say, until after decisions are handed down in those trials.
However, sustaining that strategy, during the most contentious and consequential judicial actions in U.S. presidential history, will be severely tested in the coming months, political strategists say.
Expect Trump to use a series of criminal trials from New York City to Georgia and Florida in the months ahead to fuel a campaign deeply rooted in grievance politics. Biden has sought to use a routine schedule of presidential events – promoting the economy and infrastructure investments – to draw a contrast with Trump’s chaotic legal woes.
The trials, some carried live on television, are likely to dominate news cycles, providing Trump an unorthodox platform to rally supporters who have put him at the top of the Republican primary field and believe the former president is being politically persecuted, despite the evidence.
Biden’s less dramatic reelection efforts will likely draw less valuable free air time, and any effort to provide some counterprogramming will be complicated by the Democratic president’s decision to not wade into the charges or use them to frame the potential dangers to democracy posed by Trump.
“It’s going to be very tricky and a real tough balancing act,” said Jimmy Seagull, a Democratic strategist working on congressional races.
CONVICTION ‘CHANGES EVERYTHING’
On the plus side for Democrats, the trials will keep the details of Trump’s unprecedented actions that led to the serious charges fresh in voters’ minds, giving Democrats and Biden an opportunity to provide a sharp contrast.
And all bets are off if Trump is convicted on any of the charges, officials say.
“A conviction changes everything. You will then see a more detailed, forceful effort by the president to connect the crimes to a broader threat to the nation,” said a senior Democrat working on Biden’s campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Until then, any Biden comment would fuel unfounded Republican attacks that the state and federal charges are politically motivated, and aides believe his silence reinforces a central tenet of his campaign: a return to normalcy.
“Anything he says or does could be perceived as putting a thumb on the scale and…would be exploited by Trump and his team to the detriment of the legal process. They don’t need to raise concerns. The news, perp walks, court appearances and evidence that continues to emerge say it all,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist.
The White House and the reelection campaign are content to use the upcoming months – when Republicans are embroiled in a nasty nominating race – to pitch Americans on the success of Biden’s economic policies, interviews show.
His public approval rating held steady at 40% in early August, with concerns about the economy souring Americans’ opinion of his performance despite falling inflation, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll.
“Increasing the president’s economic poll numbers requires lots of time, repeating numbers and a lot of message discipline. We can always go back to Trump,” said a senior Democrat involved in the reelection effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Instead, the reelection campaign will try to draw attention to differences between the two candidates, officials say.
On Thursday, as Trump was surrendering to Georgia authorities and posing for an unprecedented mug shot, Biden’s campaign account on the X platform posted: “Apropos of nothing, I think today’s a great day to give to my campaign.”
Asked Friday if he’d seen Trump’s mug shot, Biden, who was emerging from a Pilates class during his Lake Tahoe vacation, told reporters “I did see it on television – handsome guy.”
America’s other living presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter — have also stayed mum, leaving the country without a trusted voice of political and moral authority who can lay out the seriousness of the charges against Trump.
Democratic former congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio recently launched a national advocacy group called “We the People,” aimed at organizing voters who feel exhausted by partisan politics. He said there is an alternative path for Biden that recognizes the historic moment in America while preserving the integrity of the investigation.
“I’m sure their calculation is that everything gets politicized, but I do think a firm statement just saying ‘Look, regardless of where you stand on tax rate or government spending or education policy, this is so far beyond that conversation. Any direct attempt to undermine the United States of America is a slap in the face of anyone who served the country. We’re better than that,'” Ryan said.
He said Biden could then refer to the statement when asked repeatedly about the unfolding events in the coming months.
Biden could “be firm, be clear and be done,” Ryan said.