WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s legal woes just grew exponentially worse. And the man he may well face in the 2024 general election is refusing to gloat.
President Joe Biden gave no statement Thursday after Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury — one of few high officials who refrained from commenting.
For Biden, there is little upside to speaking out or trying to capitalize on the development in the case, which involves a payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election his predecessor won. Biden entered office promising to respect prosecutors’ independence. Anything he said about Trump’s legal troubles would risk validating a Republican argument that he’s the mastermind of it all.
What Biden is doing instead is running a re-election campaign in everything but name. There’s no campaign manager yet, no TV ads, no re-election headquarters. For now, Biden doesn’t need them, allies say.
He has all but locked up the Democratic nomination already, despite relatively low job approval ratings.
“The fact that he doesn’t have a primary challenge given his 38% poll numbers and the inflation rate and that he’s 80 years old is remarkable,” said a longtime Democratic fundraiser and Biden supporter. “Why would you ever announce when you’ve cleared the field without doing any work to beat anybody down? You could wait until June 2024 to announce.”
With no formal campaign apparatus, Biden is using the power of incumbency to draw an implicit contrast between himself and Trump that could prove useful if they end up facing each other.
Early next week, Trump is expected to be arraigned in New York. He can expect continuous coverage of the process, as well as any statements he makes to the judge, Juan M. Merchan.
Biden, meantime, will be in Minnesota, one of the upper Midwestern states he needs to hold if he’s to win a second term. He’ll visit a clean energy tech company and talk about legislation he signed that will pump hundreds of billions of dollars into weaning the U.S. from fossil fuels. The visit is part of a 20-state tour that he, first lady Jill Biden and members of the Cabinet are undertaking to showcase new program to create jobs and strengthen the economy.
The trip will highlight that “the President’s economic agenda is unleashing a manufacturing and clean energy boom, creating good-paying jobs, and bringing clean energy supply chains back to the United States,” the White House said in a memo ahead of the trip.
No mention of adult film stars or grand juries.
The tour won’t draw anything like the breathless news coverage Trump’s legal woes attract. But local news reporters are bound to cover the visits, and Biden’s team hopes the takeaway will be an obvious one: While the president is focusing on middle-class America, Trump is consumed with himself.
Whatever happens in the courtroom, Trump’s indictment will help him capture the Republican nomination, some Democrats contend.
“On the Republican side, this helps lock the nomination for Trump, because it will be portrayed as the truth of everything he’s been saying about a deep state conspiracy out to get him,” David Brock, the president of Facts First U.S.A., a pro-Biden group, said before the indictment.
A rerun of the Biden-Trump campaign is something many in Biden’s camp would welcome. Presidential elections often hinge on whether voters see them as referendums on incumbents or choices between the two candidates.
With Trump as the GOP nominee, the focus would be as much on his behavior and history as Biden’s record. In that case, the election would be a choice.
Speaking about Biden’s standing, the Democratic fundraiser said: “When your poll numbers are low and people are in a sour mood, you want the election to be a choice and not a referendum.
“I would love to have Donald Trump be the nominee,” the person added. “All you do is spend your money airing every idiot thing Trump says and ask suburban women voters in the battleground states: Do you really want to go back to this?”
Even if Biden maintains a disciplined silence, outside groups are sure to remind voters that Trump just made history for the wrong reason: as the first ex-president to face criminal charges.
“That does become a salient political issue that Democrats clearly will use,” Brock said. “It will come up, and outside groups will use it and use it quite effectively. So I think that it’s definitely a potent weapon.”
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