It’s rare for the leader of the free world to be rendered silent, but President Joe Biden is clearly determined to say as little as possible about his predecessor Donald Trump’s federal indictment.
His White House dodges questions about the matter. His campaign doesn’t respond to them. And Biden himself wants nothing to do with it. “I have no comment on what happened,” he told reporters Friday while in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
The reticence reflects the precarious and unprecedented situation in which Biden finds himself: Just as Trump is the first former president to be charged by the federal government, Biden is the first incumbent to have his chief political rival indicted by his own administration.
While hardly unforeseen, Trump’s indictment brought a fresh round of reminders throughout Biden world that the president does not want to be drawn into the drama with commentary of any sort. He’s wary of providing fodder to Trump and his allies’ efforts to portray the Justice Department as engaged in a politically motivated prosecution.
Eric Dezenhall, a longtime crisis communications consultant, said Biden’s cautious path was prudent.
“There are certain positions you take not because they are persuasive but because they do the least damage,” he said. “Any syllable Biden or the White House team utters will be used in court and politically to validate the witch hunt narrative.”
Biden, who made restoring the independence of the Justice Department a central campaign promise in 2020, now aims to reinforce that principle as both a matter of politics and policy.
“I have never once — not one single time —suggested to the Justice Department what they should do or not do, relative to bringing a charge or not bringing a charge,” Biden said Thursday. “I’m honest.”
Later that evening, the White House said, the president learned of the 37 felony counts filed against Trump by a Miami grand jury through news coverage of Trump’s announcement that he’d been summoned to surrender on Tuesday.
Asked Friday whether he had spoken to Attorney General Merrick Garland about the case, Biden replied curtly.
“I have not spoken to him at all,” he told reporters in Rocky Mount. “I’m not going to speak to him.”
Further complicating matters for Biden is that he faces his own special counsel probe into classified documents discovered at his home and former office. The circumstances were markedly different: Unlike Trump, Biden voluntarily returned the documents to the federal government. Meanwhile, the president’s son, Hunter, faces an ongoing Justice Department probe into his finances and the purchase of a firearm while under the influence of illegal substances.
Republicans defending Trump have already sought to accuse Biden of directing the prosecution, or alleging a double standard in how the Justice Department brings cases.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy calls the Trump indictment a “grave injustice” and has pledged that House Republicans “will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable.”
The White House is pushing back against the idea of any political meddling in the prosecution.
“Look, this is a president who respects the rule of law and has said that since day one,” White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said Friday. “That’s precisely why we’re not commenting here. He believes in respecting the independence of the DOJ and protecting the integrity of their processes.”
Privately, Biden aides express some glee at Trump’s predicament — and some wish they were free to pile on in highlighting Trump’s alleged crimes and Republicans’ rush to defend him to the masses. There’s also frustration that Trump will again steal the national spotlight and a desire to ensure Biden doesn’t get sucked into the maelstrom.
Biden allies have been quietly told to keep a low profile on the matter, and to ensure they don’t inadvertently say something that draws the president into the controversy.
Dezenhall compared the situation to when then-President Richard Nixon commented on the Charles Manson trial and sparked concerns that it would prevent him from getting a fair trial.
“Imagine what would happen if a guy who already has the support of 40% of the country was thought to be suffering a similar fate,” he added of Trump. “White Houses are very keen to this kind of thing.”
Said Dezenhall: “As devastating as this prosecution appears to Trump at the moment, we’ve been hearing “They got him now” since 2015. I’m not so sure, and you can bet the smarter Dems aren’t so sure either.”
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