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Updated May 30, 2024, 7:47pm EDT
politics

President Biden’s muted response to the Trump conviction

REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
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The News

On Thursday, Donald Trump became the first former US president to be convicted of a felony crime, with a New York jury finding him guilty on all 34 counts of falsifying business records. The response from all corners was swift, and loud — but not from Trump’s main opponent in the presidential race, Joe Biden.

The reaction from Biden and his camp followed the same path of the last several months: Muted. Despite rumors last week that he might address the Trump verdict from the White House, Semafor was told shortly after the guilty verdict came in that the president, who is in Delaware for the anniversary of his son’s death, has no plans to give a speech tonight.

If he does speak on the verdict, it more likely would be informal — in response to a question from a reporter, for example — as opposed to in official White House remarks or a high-profile campaign speech. And the administration, which has been careful to avoid the appearance of interference in legal affairs, is unlikely to get involved.

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“We respect the rule of law, and have no additional comment,” Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, told reporters.

Biden’s campaign offered its most direct comment yet on Trump’s legal issues, but gave little indication it would change its approach of largely ignoring them in favor of other topics.

“In New York today, we saw that no one is above the law,” Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said in a statement shortly following the verdict. “Donald Trump has always mistakenly believed he would never face consequences for breaking the law for his own personal gain. But today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

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The statement went on to bring the focus back to a main campaign theme from team Biden: The argument that Trump poses a threat to democracy. The campaign is expected to keep the focus on the arguments they’ve continued to make to voters — safeguarding rights, lowering healthcare costs, abortion, and more.

The campaign did send out a fundraising text to supporters about the verdict, but once again the focus was not on the substance of the case: Instead, the message was that Trump “was likely setting fundraising records” from fired-up conservatives and that Democrats should give in response.

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The View From Democrats in Congress

Democratic members of Congress, who do not face Biden’s unique concerns as chief executive, were able to get a little friskier while echoing the administration’s defense of the legal system in the face of Republican attacks.

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“No one is above the law, including a former President of the United States,” Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat, told Semafor. “The prospect of a criminal running for the highest office of the land is an affront, and frankly dangerous, for the integrity of our democracy.”

Guidance from the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee advised partisans to stress that “our justice system worked as it is supposed to” and shows that Republicans will “bend the knee to former President Trump,” but included no specific attacks around the facts of the case.

It does not look likely to be much of an issue going forward as well — especially if they’re not getting a signal from the top of the ticket to drive the point home.

“I don’t think [Minority Leader Hakeem] Jeffries or leadership will use leadership capital to talk about Trump,” one senior Democratic aide said.

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Shelby’s view

It’s unsurprising that Biden and his campaign will likely continue shying away from attacks against Trump on this topic: As Semafor reported back in January following the E. Jean Carroll ruling, many Democrats close to the White House believe that voters already know who Trump is, know that he’s under legal scrutiny, and that Biden would be better off focusing on issues that are affecting Americans day in and day out.

Democratic strategist Eddie Vale told my colleague Morgan Chalfant that the Biden camp should continue handling the situation as they have been.

“They should cut surgically with a scalpel and not swing wildly with a machete like Trump will do,” Vale said. “Trump being a convicted felon liar will have an impact but the economy and abortion will be the ultimate issues still, so they won’t let that core message get away from them.”

The campaign got mixed reactions after dipping their toe into trial coverage earlier this week by holding a press conference — largely on unrelated issues — outside the courthouse with actor Robert De Niro and two former Capitol Police officers. While they argued the event was successful in driving coverage of their message, team Trump used it to bolster their case that the trial was politically motivated. Leaning fully in now that a verdict has been reached could serve as more fodder for Trump to air out those claims, and is likely a distraction that Biden and his team don’t want.

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Room for Disagreement

One Democratic strategist texted Semafor that the party was making a mistake by not attacking Trump more directly over his conviction. Piercing Trump’s sense of invulnerability and telling a story about how “12 average Americans finally stood up to him” could help sway voters at the margins.

“Trump trauma syndrome has led Dems to artificially divide issues into kitchen table issues and Trump behavior issues, which totally misses the gray area where the voters who will decide this election live,” the strategist argued. “It’s all about vibes and trajectory.”

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Notable

  • For more on the Trump verdict, check out Semafor Signals, which is gathering reactions and insight in response to this breaking story.

Benjy Sarlin and Morgan Chalfant contributed to this story.

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