Is Biden's silence on Trump's indictments smart politics or a missed opportunity?

Inside the Biden-world debate on how to respond to the growing list of criminal charges against the Republican presidential frontrunner

Joe Biden
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

At its core, Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign was predicated on a fairly straightforward proposition: elect me, and I will return the country to the stability and normalcy abandoned during the Trump administration. "The American people want their government to work, and I don't think that's too much for them to ask," Biden exclaimed at the launch of his campaign. "The country is sick of the division," he added. "They're sick of the fighting. They're sick of the childish behavior."

Nearly four years later, and now-President Biden finds himself once again faced with the prospect of running against a resurgent Donald Trump, who sits comfortably atop a sprawling field of fellow GOP presidential aspirants. This time, however, it's Biden who is running for reelection from a lofty White House perch. Trump, meanwhile, is forced to split his time between actively campaigning and seeing to a historic slate of criminal indictments — ones which may bolster him in the Republican primary races, but pose a serious general election liability if he secures his party's nomination. It's a dynamic that casts a shadow over the entire 2024 campaign season, although listening to the Biden administration, you'd hardly know it exists in the first place. Instead, the White House has been conspicuously quiet about the dozens of criminal charges leveled against the man they will most likely face next November, going so far as to explicitly order the Democratic National Committee and his reelection team to "remain silent" after Trump's first federal indictment for mishandling classified material at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

Nevertheless, there remain those within the Biden camp who see Trump's indictments as a means to underscore the inherent weaknesses of their nearest national rival, leading to a schism of sorts among Democrats: is the president practicing smart politics by staying silent, or is he missing an opportunity to set himself up for a knockout blow?

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What are the commentators saying?

"The reason for the silence is pretty simple," Politico said, pointing out that the norms Biden promised to restore as a candidate in 2020 included the "thick, bold line between the West Wing and the Justice Department that had been drawn after Watergate and, to Democrats, had been dangerously thinned during the Trump administration." Plus, according to one Biden campaign official who spoke with the outlet anonymously, there's little need for the White House to react each time the former President is criminally charged: "Americans know what Trump did," the aide reasoned. "A lesson of every election cycle from 2018 to now is, don't get mired in the endless details of Trump scandals." Instead, they recommended the Biden team keep the focus on "values and agendas."

"It all speaks for itself," agreed Biden 2020 campaign pollster John Anzalone to The Associated Press. To that end, Biden can focus on the importance of — and dangers to — "democracy" as a broad campaign theme, without having to name Trump explicitly since the former president's "very presence is a threat to democracy." Moreover, by not addressing the various charges directly, Biden is able to demonstrate "the contrast between what Americans can continue to expect" from his time in office and Trump, NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez explained after Trump was indicted for alleged hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. At the time there was a "brief but significant split-screen" between Biden "meeting with his advisers at the White House" while Trump was simultaneously "sitting at a defense table in New York."

There are more overtly tactical reasons for Biden's silence as well. The decision not to speak out about the Trump indictments may have less to do with persuasiveness, and instead be the path that will "do the least damage," crisis communications expert Eric Dezenhall told AP. "Any syllable Biden or the White House team utters will be used in court and politically to validate the witch hunt narrative" which Trump and his allies have pushed.

But not everyone is convinced that Biden is setting the right example for the rest of his party. "It's malpractice to let [Trump] dominate," a senior Democratic aide speaking on the condition of anonymity told NBC. Admitting that Biden himself should "be above this," the aide said the rest of the party should be stepping in to fill the void left by the president now, instead of "waiting until a general election to start defining this." The "this" in question is at the core of "a pretty easy argument to make," one Democratic source who had advocated for a more frontal line of attack told Politico: "Vote for our guy, because the other guy is going to jail."

What's next?

One thing most commentators seem to agree on is that at some point in the future, Biden is going to have to speak up more directly about Trump's criminal peril. "It would be like not talking about the sky being blue," Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said, calling it a "major part of our discourse," and "impossible for the campaign to avoid."

"I don't know how it's going to happen, but it will happen," Rosenberg predicted. "It has to."

Speaking with NBC, one Democratic donor agreed, saying it isn't "sustainable to say nothing." And in the meantime, argued former Barack Obama White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer, "every Democrat not working in the Biden administration or campaign" should be doing what the current administration won't, and fill the "messaging vacuum on the Democratic side." Ultimately, the Democratic aide who spoke with NBC explained, trusting the voters will take your silence as it's intended is an unacceptable risk. "You have to hit it, hit it and hit it," he said. "You can't rely on the public to interpret it the way you want them to."

Still, for as much as party insiders seem to believe that Biden will, eventually, speak up about Trump's indictments, Politico cautioned that once the Biden team chooses a path, "they stick to it — grumblers be damned."

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.