At a Moment of National Trauma, Biden Feels Compelled to Stay on the Sidelines

If this were any other extraordinary case of historic import, any other case likely to tear at the national fabric, the president of the United States might have stepped before the cameras to try to calm his fellow citizens and encourage faith in the American system of justice.

But this was no ordinary extraordinary case. And President Biden was no disinterested bystander. As America sought to absorb the first criminal conviction of one of its presidents, the incumbent was effectively conflicted out of the matter because he is running against the newly adjudicated felon.

Mr. Biden’s absence from view in the hours after former President Donald J. Trump was found guilty of 34 felonies testified to the awkward position confronting the current occupant of the White House when it comes to holding his predecessor accountable. If Mr. Biden spoke out directly, he would doubtlessly feed into Mr. Trump’s false narrative that the prosecution was nothing more than a political hit job to take out his challenger. But some Democrats were nonetheless frustrated by the president’s public silence.

Mr. Biden’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum meant that his political risks essentially outweighed his presidential imperatives. While many of his predecessors have played a pastoral role at other moments when the justice system was tested during incendiary cases — think Rodney King, Michael Brown or George Floyd — Mr. Biden concluded that speaking out would make things worse, not better.

“I may be alone in this, but I think he should address the convictions with some sobriety,” said David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama when Mr. Biden was vice president. “It was a sad and stunning day for our country, but we’re a country of laws, not men. That is a bedrock principle of our Constitution and our democracy, and even presidents are subject to it.”

Mr. Biden has given voice to such principles before, but in this case he finds himself trying to navigate a treacherous political thicket unlike that encountered by any of the men who have held the office before him. In some ways, from Mr. Biden’s point of view, it is the worst of both worlds, a situation presenting more threat than opportunity.

Not only does he feel uncomfortable playing the paterfamilias role of comforter in chief, but he also considers himself constrained from reminding voters that his challenger is now a criminal. He can be neither president nor candidate, but instead has become a silent witness, trusting that fellow Americans will see it the way he does without telling them exactly how he sees it.

Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director for Hillary Clinton, said Mr. Biden’s words would not convince his opponent’s backers anyway since they are already unbothered by four criminal indictments, including charges of mishandling classified documents and trying to illegally overturn the 2020 election that he lost.

“A Trump supporter who’s outraged by the verdict is not going to be moved for calm by any Democratic president or Republican president who does not back Donald Trump,” she said. “Even if Biden were not his political opponent, if you’re so outraged by the verdict that you’re ready to take to the street, a Democratic president is not going to reach you. That’s the sad reality of being president today.”

Indeed, Mr. Trump has been trying to goad Mr. Biden into engaging on the New York case as well as the other indictments by falsely alleging that the president was masterminding them all. While Mr. Biden appointed the attorney general who has overseen the two federal cases against Mr. Trump, there is no evidence that the president himself or his White House have played any role in them. And the New York case, like the Georgia election subversion case, was brought by a local prosecutor who does not answer to the president.

That, of course, did not stop Mr. Trump from claiming the opposite moments after his conviction on Thursday evening. “This was done by the Biden administration in order to wound or hurt an opponent, a political opponent,” he said outside the courthouse. His allies quickly amplified the assertion. On Fox News, the hosts and guests talked about the “evil forces” and “wicked people” pursuing Mr. Trump, blaming the prosecution on Mr. Biden, “who is now the villain.”

The notion that the Justice Department is simply a Biden political weapon surely comes as something of a surprise to Mr. Biden given that the same department is putting his own son Hunter on trial on Monday on federal gun charges.

But rather than play into Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theory, Mr. Biden left it to aides to make a formal reaction to the verdict. Ian Sams, a spokesman for the White House Counsel’s Office, issued a one-line statement: “We respect the rule of law, and have no additional comment.”

The president’s campaign was less restrained but sought to minimize expectations that the guilty verdict would fundamentally alter the race or that Mr. Biden would make it a central part of his campaign.

“Donald Trump has always mistakenly believed he would never face consequences for breaking the law for his own personal gain,” Michael Tyler, a spokesman for the campaign, said in a statement. “But today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.”

The reluctance to confront the matter too directly did not stop the president from trying to raise money from donors, just as his opponent was already doing. Within hours of the jury’s pronouncement, Mr. Biden sent the first of several solicitations to supporters along the lines of Mr. Tyler’s comments.

“Despite a jury finding Donald Trump guilty today, there is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box,” Mr. Biden said, adding that “Donald Trump’s supporters are fired up and likely setting fund-raising records for his campaign.”

A Biden adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the president does not need to run on Mr. Trump’s conviction because voters will be presented with information about it already. The adviser said the campaign does not anticipate that the verdict will change the contest, which polls show is exceedingly tight, especially in the critical battleground states needed to prevail in the Electoral College.

Instead, the adviser said Mr. Biden will continue to frame his argument to voters around issues like the economy, abortion rights and democracy. The adviser said he did not expect the campaign to run advertisements focusing on Mr. Trump’s status as a convicted felon, nor did he imagine that Mr. Biden would try to back out of the June 27 debate on the grounds that he should not appear onstage with a criminal, as some Democrats have urged.

It says something about today’s politics that running against a convicted felon is not seen as a winning strategy. Still, Mr. Biden and his team have shown more willingness to poke at Mr. Trump’s criminal troubles in recent weeks. The president has mocked his predecessor for falling asleep during the trial (“Sleepy Don”) and sent the actor Robert De Niro to hold a feisty news conference at the courthouse assailing Mr. Trump (“guilty and we all know it”).

While Mr. Biden had no plans to make a formal statement on the verdict, he will almost certainly be asked about it in coming days by reporters, and aides said he most likely will offer some thoughts at such a time.

The president passed up the first such opportunities on Friday morning, passing by reporters without comment as he left Rehoboth Beach, Del., to fly to Washington to meet with the visiting prime minister of Belgium and host a celebration of the Kansas City Chiefs. The White House did announce that he would make a statement later in the day — about the Middle East. He will then return to Delaware for the weekend before heading to France next week for ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

That is a contrast the Biden campaign is all too happy to foster — a commander in chief welcoming foreign leaders and football champions to the White House, grappling with big world affairs and traveling to the iconic beaches of Normandy to pay tribute to American heroes versus a challenger preparing for a sentencing hearing where he may get prison time.

“Trump will descend even more deeply into rage and self-pity. He cannot help himself,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Biden and the campaign would be well served to lean more deeply into the contrast between a president fighting to address the pressing concerns of people, and Trump, who fights only for himself.”

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