On an atypical, historic day that saw former President Trump walk into a New York courthouse to be arraigned on 34 felony counts, it was business as usual at the White House.
President Biden and his team all but ignored the developments that enraptured much of Washington, D.C., on Tuesday as Trump — Biden’s predecessor and likely 2024 opponent — surrendered to authorities as both pro and anti-Trump protesters swarmed lower Manhattan.
“The president’s going to focus on the American people like he does every day, this is not something that is a focus for him,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said as she fielded a host of questions from reporters during the daily briefing that was occurring at the same time the nation was transfixed on Trump’s surrender.
Moments after Trump arrived for his arraignment, Jean-Pierre took questions from reporters on gun laws, the detention of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Russia, gas prices and a Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down in February.
Afterward, Biden met with a group of science and technology advisers about the future of artificial intelligence, the type of low-key White House event that garners little national attention.
The dueling scenes amount to a very intentional effort by the White House to show Biden is focused on what he believes matters to the public while his predecessor and potential 2024 opponent is at the center of a legal circus, dragging much of the GOP with him.
“This is unquestionably the right playbook. Between hush money to a porn star and campaign finance violations, each move Trump makes in this ridiculous saga turns off independents and moderates on both sides and presumably turns them right toward Biden,” said Scott Mulhauser, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive and former senior aide to then-Vice President Biden.
“So there’s not much of a better move than letting Trump focus on himself … while Biden continues to show what being a president who actually does the job can mean for economic growth in states across the country,” he said.
When news of Trump’s indictment broke last Thursday, Biden was preparing for a tour of tornado damage in Mississippi. Over the weekend, his administration declared a disaster declaration for the state of Arkansas which also faced devastating tornado damage, highlighting that the president had spoken to that state’s governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who also happens to be Trump’s former White House press secretary.
On Monday afternoon, when cable networks were all fixated on Trump’s plane landing in New York City, Biden was touting the benefits of a new manufacturing investment during a trip to Minnesota. He briefly addressed a reporter’s question that day about potential unrest in New York due to Trump’s indictment, saying only that he had confidence in the New York Police Department to keep things from getting out of hand.
Also on Tuesday, the president’s Twitter account stayed far away from Trump news, instead being filled with posts about his economic agenda, the lack of a budget proposal from House Republicans and the results of the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments.
“I think they are doing it correctly so far, and I hope it continues, which is basically to not get into the story,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.
While Democrats widely agree it is in the White House’s best interest to stay out of the way while Trump reminds voters of his various legal issues, there is some frustration within the party that Biden’s efforts to focus on his agenda and issues relevant to the public is being drowned out by media coverage of the former president.
“If folks want to talk about Trump and 2024 that’s fine. But wall to wall coverage of his motorcade to the airport, his plane landing, bags being taken off the plane, and then his caravan to his apartment? C’mon. Do better,” Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison tweeted.
The efforts to contrast the Trump saga with Biden’s competence and focus on the job hearken back to the 2020 campaign, when Biden’s team was happy to sit back and let Trump grab the spotlight with incendiary remarks about the pandemic or civil unrest.
The president has largely not commented on the Trump indictment, aside from the short comments about potential unrest.
Jean-Pierre repeatedly rebuffed questions at the White House on Tuesday, refusing to answer why the administration would barely acknowledge the historic event, citing repeatedly the “ongoing” nature of the investigation.
Fox News and The New York Times both questioned Jean-Pierre on why she didn’t have more to say, noting that it is the biggest news story in the country and that Biden has never shied away from commenting on the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, despite those also being ongoing investigations.
“I think the American people should feel reassured that when there is an ongoing case like this one, that we’re just not commenting,” Jean-Pierre said in response.
When it comes to Jan. 6, she said, “the president will never shy away when it comes to our democracy … it was a different, different moment and a different time.”
She added though that Biden inevitably will stay up to date on the developments, giving the nature of the media coverage of the former president.
Biden allies insist the White House declining to comment on Trump is a better strategy.
“Why put energy on something that was in the past and done by someone who knows better?” said a former official under former President Obama. “At the end of the day, the White House has to run the country, not entertain foolishness. No person is above the law.”