A spacious hall with curtains and marble columns. Lots of American flags. Secret Service agents passing through the crowd, keeping everything under control. Patriotic songs. A rapt audience. And big news TV networks broadcasting live.
This scene did not take place in the White House, but rather Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s residence in Florida. And it was not U.S. President Joe Biden who was about to deliver a speech, but Trump, his predecessor and a candidate to succeed him in the 2024 elections. Trump organized this press conference after appearing before a judge in New York last Tuesday, where he was charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He spoke for nearly half an hour, and every minute of the speech was broadcast live in prime time. TV stations dedicated hours of airtime to special programs on Trump, with teams of journalists and helicopters sent to cover the historic event: the first indictment ever of a former or sitting U.S. president. That same day, Biden only appeared before the media for four minutes, during an act to promote research on artificial intelligence.
Trump’s indictment has once again brought to the fore the drastic differences between the two presidents. The Republican, an ostentatious TV personality obsessed with audiences, is always ready to be talked about, even if it’s bad news, and is always ready to say something, no matter if it’s true, false or an insult. The Democrat, on the other hand, struggles in front of the cameras, occasionally slipping up, and is unpopular — only four out of 10 voters approve of his work. But he claims his government is getting results without the need for fuss.
Trump has been the center of attention since March 25, when he claimed that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was going to indict him in three days’ time over his alleged crimes stemming from hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election to cover up an alleged extramarital affair. The real estate mogul was wrong about the date: the indictment was not announced until a week later. In those seven days, all talk in politics and the media revolved around the former president and the case. In contrast, one of Biden’s most important foreign policy initiatives — the second Summit for Democracy — went almost unnoticed by the media, even though 120 countries participated in the event.
The same situation occurred last Monday on the eve of Trump’s arraignment in New York. Biden was in Minnesota to promote his landmark government program: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which plans to build and renovate highways and airports. While the media was waiting for him, nearly all their questions were about Trump’s indictment.
For now, Biden appears willing to allow Trump to take the spotlight. On Tuesday, when the Republican was formally charged in New York, Biden held only one public event: a meeting with his scientific and tech advisors to discuss artificial intelligence. He made a few comments to the media, but did not answer any questions.
On that same day, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre opened the daily press conference by welcoming Finland into NATO and reporting on a telephone conversation between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. When asked about Trump’s indictment, she replied: “It’s an ongoing case, so we’re just not going to comment on the case specifically itself.” This message has been the White House’s standard response to inquires about the Stormy Daniels case. “The president is going to focus on the American people, like he does every day. This [Trump’s indictment] is not something that is a focus for him,” Jean-Pierre added.
The message that the White House wanted to convey was clear: the president was doing his job of managing the country, without distractions or chaos, just like any other day, while his rival was having his fingerprints taken as he awaited indictment on 34 charges.
Drawcard for Biden?
Democratic strategists are convinced that Trump’s legal troubles will benefit Biden if the two finally end up running against each other in the 2024 presidential election, as they did in 2020. Biden has not yet formally announced his candidacy, although he has repeatedly suggested that he is going to run. Trump, meanwhile, must still win the Republican Party’s presidential primaries.
“This is a moment to reassure Americans by continuing to demonstrate what strong, stable, effective leadership looks like,” Democratic strategist Karen Finney told Reuters.
The indictment initially appeared to give Trump a popularity boost. The polls show that he is the favorite to win the Republican primaries, with a huge lead over his next-closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t yet announced his intention to run for the White House. And that lead has increased in recent days. What’s more, since the indictment was announced, the Trump campaign has raised almost $10 million.
But while Trump’s followers have closed ranks around him, the rest of America is much more skeptical. In a Quinnipiac poll carried out a week ago, 62% of independent voters said they supported the indictment, while 57% thought that Trump should drop out of the electoral race if the charges were confirmed.
The images of Trump in front of Judge Juan Manuel Merchan may just have been the first of a whole courtroom series. Trump is facing a series of civil and criminal investigations that may see him on the bench in the middle of the election campaign. The former president must appear before Merchan again on December 4, but his next court appointment is scheduled for April 25, when he will respond to allegations that he raped former magazine columnist Jean Carroll in the mid-1990s.
Trump’s response to his legal troubles, such as his attacks on Judge Merchan and Prosecutor Bragg, or his call on Wednesday to “defund the Department of Justice and the FBI,” may remind voters why they turned their backs on him in 2020 and voted for Biden. Or at least that’s what the White House is hoping.
And democratic strategists are not the only ones reaching that conclusion. “Right now, the political world revolves around Donald Trump once again. It sucks the oxygen out of the room for any other Republican attempting to challenge him, and it allows Biden to just essentially focus on governing and on his agenda,” Republican strategist Ryan Williams told U.S. public radio network NPR.
In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, former president George W. Bush’s most trusted political advisor, added: “This is the first election since 1920, when Eugene Debs was the Socialist candidate, that someone indicted or convicted is running for president. Whether Mr. Trump’s indictment helps him win the nomination is an open question. But his 2024 general-election chances are now much slimmer. Hush money for porn stars isn’t a winning issue.”
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