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Updated Jan 31, 2024, 9:02am EST
politics

Why team Biden is unlikely to use E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
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The News

E. Jean Carroll, who was awarded more than $83 million in damages on Friday over defamatory statements made by former President Donald Trump, says she wants to do “anything” she can to help Joe Biden defeat him. But it seems unlikely that Biden, who has remained quiet on the news, will take her up on the offer.

Friday’s ruling came after a jury last year found Trump liable for sexually assaulting Carroll in a dressing room in 1996. That, combined with this latest news, even prompted Nikki Haley to note that she “trust[s] the jury” — a non-defense of Trump virtually unheard of by his Republican opponents this primary cycle. It’s also brought about questions over when Biden and other Democrats might begin using the case as an attack against Trump, after failing to do so following the prior ruling.

“In 2016, we all heard a tape in which Trump bragged about doing EXACTLY what he was found liable of doing to E. Jean Carroll, and he was elected anyway,” David Axelrod, formerly Obama’s senior advisor, texted Semafor. “It is vile and disgusting. But people are concerned about their own lives, so while this is a piece of an argument it can’t be the essence of it.”

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That theory seems to be the most popular one among Democrats close to the White House and those who have run past campaigns against Trump: Voters know who Trump is, they argue, and team Biden is better off focusing on issues like abortion and the economy. To the extent they use topics like the Carroll ruling, it should be to argue generally that Trump isn’t concerned about issues that interest voters, rather than a focused attack on his character.

“It will be carried by other messengers, and voters are going to be reminded of that,” said Josh Schwerin, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “But the campaign likely won’t have to really do it … There’s an imperative for the campaign to focus on delivering a message that otherwise won’t be heard. And so they need to be drawing the contrast with Trump on the two competing records on what Biden has done and will do to improve voters’ lives, and what Trump did that they didn’t like previously — and will do if he gets another chance.”

Schwerin argued that if Biden eventually mentions the Carroll case, it won’t “be a bad thing” for team Biden. Still, he said the campaign knows that tossing in even one line about Carroll in a speech largely focused, for example, on Trump’s policy failings as president would result in media coverage that only focused on the one line.

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Democratic strategist Tim Hogan, meanwhile, told Semafor that the Trump legal cases in general provide a “key advantage” for Biden whether or not Democrats comment on them — the “split screen” between a candidate sitting in court versus one out on the campaign trail “outlining an agenda.” The Carroll case, he said, simply adds to that general argument (recently floated by Haley as well as Democrats) that Trump is “a chaos agent” and “lacks decency.”

“He will accumulate more baggage every time he walks though that courtroom,” said Hogan, who worked on Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign and Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “He is selling a message to the American people: ‘Please bail me out.’ It’s not about you.”

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Shelby’s view

There’s another reason why the Carroll attack line is unlikely to become a focus of Biden’s campaign: Republicans have already argued that Trump’s many legal cases are politically motivated. While state and federal prosecutors are not involved in this particular case, Carroll’s latest comments about helping defeat Trump went viral in conservative circles, as did news that Democratic megadonor Reid Hoffman helped fund the lawsuit against Trump. Biden has generally been reluctant to discuss Trump’s various legal issues, even as he increasingly singles him out by name.

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Biden has also been reluctant to get into back-and-forths with Trump that will inevitably get ugly. When Trump was under fire over the Access Hollywood tape and various accusations of sexual misconduct in 2016, he appeared with women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct ahead of their debate. Biden said later that he advised Hillary Clinton against bringing up the tape at the time. “I think the biggest mistake that was made, and everyone underestimated it the last time about President Trump, the place he’s most comfortable is in the gutter arguing,” Biden said at a campaign event in 2019.

In Biden’s case, Republicans would be likely to resurface Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegations against Biden, though her subsequent defection to Russia has made the already-fraught topic even harder to bring up.

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Room for Disagreement

A few Democrats are hoping Biden does use Carroll to the fullest possible extent, arguing that the court cases are crucial to reminding American voters who Trump is after several years out of office.

“I think Trump is a very different candidate in 2024 than he was in 2020. And I think it’s important for us to to be clear about that with the American people,” said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg. “Should the Democrats be talking about this? We have an obligation to be talking about this. We have an obligation to be making sure the American people are aware of what they’re signing up for if they vote for him. We have an obligation to talk about all of this. It’s not whether we will — we have an obligation to do so.”

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Notable

  • Joe Biden might not bring up E. Jean Carroll, but he is mentioning Donald Trump by name far more often in recent months, Axios reported on Tuesday: The shift comes as Biden trails Trump in various polls, and amid pressure from key strategists for Biden to more aggressively go after the former president.
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