Washington may be consumed by Donald Trump’s impeachment trial this week, but the White House has a decidedly different view of it: Impeachment? What impeachment?
The Biden team has shut down question after question about where Biden stands on this week’s trial, even with its massive historical, constitutional and political ramifications. On Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki wouldn’t even say whether the president would receive daily updates on the trial’s progress.
It’s a remarkable bit of messaging discipline driven by a simple political calculation. Biden’s presidency rests on whether he can drive down Covid numbers, reopen the economy and get kids back in schools. He needs his Covid relief package to do that, not the banishment of his predecessor from future public office.
“[It] just makes no sense for Biden to weigh in on the impeachment,” said one source familiar with the White House’s thinking. “He’s already said that he thought [there] were grounds for impeachment but he has to stay focused on helping people in this crisis.”
Several other people familiar with the White House’s thinking say the Biden team sees no upside in Biden weighing in on impeachment, either. His remarks would surely not move votes on the Republican side, they say. Even the slightest comment about Trump at a press briefing would blot out anything else they do that day. Talking Trump would also signal to Americans that Biden is already tilting toward politics instead of figuring out how to get shots in people’s arms.
“The last thing Americans want to see right now is that conversation from the podium,” Karen Finney, a former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser and Democratic strategist, said of the White House talking about impeachment. “Part of what they’re trying to do here is say ‘it’s a new day it’s a new administration.’ They’re not going to use the White House and the tools of the presidency to engage in politics.”
Still, Biden’s public shoulder shrug to the impeachment trial is a notable contrast to Senate Democrats, who contend that the trial is essential to holding Trump accountable for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riot in the Capitol. One Democratic senator has told POLITICO the trial was essential to publicly airing Trump’s “really heinous criminal wrongdoing and criminal intent.”
But when Psaki was pressed on Monday about how Biden would approach the proceedings, she sidestepped or deflected, saying it was a matter for Congress to handle. At one point, she said Biden didn’t have anything new to say because he was no longer in the Senate, where the trial will be held starting Tuesday.
“He will not spend much time watching the proceedings — if any time — over the course of this week,” Psaki said. “He will leave the pace, and the process and the mechanics of the impeachment proceedings up to members of Congress.”
Reporters pressed Psaki on how Biden could tell CBS News that Trump was too unstable to receive intelligence briefings but not weigh in on whether he should be stripped of the ability to run for office again — which could potentially be the end result of a Senate conviction.
“Well, he ran against him because he felt he was unfit for office and he defeated him, and that’s why he’s no longer president — Trump is no longer president of the United States,” Psaki said. “So I think his views of the former president are pretty clear. But he’s going to leave it to the Senate to see this impeachment proceedings forward.”
Biden world’s determination to not get side-tracked by Trumpian distractions is reminiscent of the strategy they adopted on the campaign trail. It was one that centered on sticking with the core message,shunned the Twitter conversation, and resisting calls to adopt the posture and temperament of the left.
Even during Trump’s first impeachment, Biden was among the last of a sprawling Democratic campaign field to call for a probe, despite the fact that he himself was central to the subject matter. Trump then was under scrutiny for applying pressure to Ukraine’s president to probe Biden’s political involvement and his son Hunter’s business dealings in that country.
Another outside adviser said that Biden has juggled the risks of having a current president weighing in on the actions of a former president, and feels wary of exacerbating political divisions. “Biden is still an institutionalist,” said the adviser, noting that the president is likely asking: “‘If I say anything, is it going to make it even more horrible for the country?’”
Republicans have cast the latest impeachment trial as a worthless political exercise, given that Democrats don’t have the votes to convict. They also plan to argue on Tuesday that it is unconstitutional to impeach a former president.
With the outcome preordained, Finney argued that should Biden hype Trump’s impeachment, he would only risk creating unnecessary political waves with the segment of America that still supports the former president.
“It’s recognizing there are people who are still in varying stages of grief about Trump,” she said of Biden’s restraint on talking impeachment politics. Finney said Biden is better off sending those voters a different message: “A lot of those folks who may have voted for Trump and are in red states, he’s trying to save their lives too.”