President Joe Biden is in the unprecedented situation of starting his first term in office while his predecessor is going through an impeachment trial — for the second time. And for the most part, he is not talking about it.
Biden has avoided the question of whether former President Donald Trump should be convicted by the Senate, which is likely to render its verdict this weekend. Trump was impeached last month by the House of Representatives on the charge that he incited the deadly January 6 US Capitol insurrection. Now on its fourth day, the trial is happening at the literal scene of the crime, where Trump supporters breached the Senate chamber last month.
Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, is instead laser-focused in his public remarks on his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill and talks on a soon-to-be-announced infrastructure plan. While impeachment has been taking up a lot of airtime this week, Biden’s White House has been assiduously focused on other things — namely, making a public case for the president’s American Rescue Plan, and meeting with lawmakers, business leaders, and governors and mayors in that effort.
“That’s the message we really want to stay focused on because it’s critical to the American people in so many ways,” a White House official told Vox, adding the president and administration don’t want to get dragged into Trump’s impeachment trial.
There are few reasons for the new president to engage. The substantial Covid-19 rescue plan is polling well with the public; a recent CBS/YouGov poll showed 83 percent of the public supports Congress passing another relief package, and that the main disagreement among those polled was whether Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan was the right size, or not big enough. That’s a much more popular topic to discuss — for a president who promised to unite the country — than his predecessor’s theoretical conviction.
Impeachment is also taking valuable time away from confirmation hearings for Biden’s Cabinet, but it’s clear the trial won’t drag on much longer. A White House official told Vox the administration feels work on the rescue package is proceeding quickly; as the Senate is wrapping up impeachment, the House Ways and Means Committee has been going through the lengthy process of marking up the House budget bill through which more Covid-19 relief would be passed.
Biden’s message is mainly that he has enough on his plate without Trump in the mix — or without watching the hearings live. And he has no desire to revisit Trump’s presidency.
“I ran like hell to defeat him because I thought he was unfit to be president,” Biden told CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell on Sunday in his first broadcast interview as president. “I watched what everybody else watched, what happened when that crew invaded the US Congress. But I’m not in the Senate now; I’ll let the Senate make that decision.”
The White House has been getting a lot of questions about impeachment
Still, as the Senate impeachment trial plays out this week, Biden’s White House has been fielding at least one question about impeachment every day.
While the White House has largely punted on questions about Trump’s culpability and whether the Senate should convict him, Psaki and Biden himself have weighed in on some of the details and previously unseen footage from the January 6 insurrection that House impeachment managers have played for senators.
“I’m just anxious to see what my Republican friends do, if they stand up,” Biden told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond on Friday morning, adding he had no plans to talk to senators about the trial and their votes.
On Wednesday, House managers played video and displayed visual models to show just how close the violent mob of Trump supporters got to coming into contact with lawmakers and staff who were fleeing from the House and Senate chambers. Some of the footage from January 6 — particularly of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) literally running from the mob — underscored how much worse the already deadly day could have been.
Speaking to reporters in the White House briefly on Thursday, Biden said, “The Senate has a very important job to complete and my guess is some minds may be changed” about whether or not to convict Trump, adding, “but I don’t know.”
“Anyone who watched that video ... found it harrowing and deeply disturbing, and that’s certainly how the president felt when he watched some of the clips,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told NBC’s Kristen Welker at Thursday’s press briefing. “The president made clear ... the fact that he felt that what happened was an assault on our democracy ... but he also knows there’s a role for Congress to play and a role for him to play. His role in this process is to be president of the United States and to govern for all of the American people.”
Indeed, when Biden made his comments about impeachment on Thursday, he was about to have a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators about an infrastructure plan — the second part of his economic recovery platform after his Covid-19 relief bill. Infrastructure is a lot less attention-grabbing than Trump; ironically, it’s one thing the former president never accomplished due to the never-ending churn of chaos in his administration.
Trump had a talent for sucking the political oxygen out of the room throughout his presidency. But Biden’s White House — much like his presidential campaign — has very little interest in engaging. They’re betting that continuing to focus on deploying Covid-19 vaccines and economic relief will pay off in the long run.
Impeachment “is obviously a big story in the country, no one’s denying that here and there’s certainly going to be a lot of attention and focus on it, but our focus and the president’s focus is on getting people back to work, getting the pandemic under control, and that means we’re not going to weigh in on every question about the impeachment trial,” Psaki said recently. “We don’t feel it’s necessary for our role to do that.”