It took approximately 14 milliseconds after the first day of Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial for the reports to start flying: The ex-president was “basically screaming” at his TV, having reached “an eight” out of ten on his angry scale. Even the most jaded interpreter of Washington couldn’t help but feel slightly disoriented — and not because of the retiree’s predictable pay-attention-to-me rage. The wailing was coming from Palm Beach now, not the White House. In the West Wing, the new staff had already, hours earlier, informed reporters that the president’s public appearances and pronouncements were done for the day.
That’s because Joe Biden is profoundly invested in you knowing that he’s got more productive things to do than spend his time thinking about, let alone watching, the trial. Like, say, surveying vaccination sites in hard-hit states (Monday). Or initiating a review of the country’s national security strategy on China (Wednesday). Or trying to iron out school-reopening procedures while aiming to squeeze his nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal through Congress (every day).
This message is impossible to miss. By the time Trump’s defense attorney Bruce Castor finished hollering on Tuesday, February 9, Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki had already deflected eight on-camera questions about Biden’s views on impeachment. By Wednesday’s end, the count was up to a dozen. “The president himself would tell you that we keep him pretty busy,” she told reporters, “and he has a full schedule this week.” And she wasn’t wrong: He visited the Pentagon for the first time just as the House managers’ video exhibits of the January 6 violence hit an emotional peak, and on Thursday he scheduled an Oval Office meeting on infrastructure policy with a group of senators — the impeachment jurors — for just two hours before they were expected in the Capitol for day three of arguments.
This all could have gone very differently. Before January 6, people close to Biden were convinced they’d have to balance the obvious parts of his new job — COVID recovery, confirming his Cabinet, resetting just about every international alliance, and so on — while fending off a constant, unhinged barrage of his predecessor’s tweets. @RealDonaldTrump, they feared, could continue to set the media’s daily agenda, as it had for the last half decade. With Trump banned from social media, that obstacle is gone, and House Democrats have firm control of D.C.’s attention. And with Trump’s impeachment trial raging, we’re learning just how Biden is planning to fulfill his back-to-normal promise, his “build back better” pledge, and his implicit “You can turn off your news-alert notifications now” assurance all at once, while the world around him shows no sign of calming.
The nothing-to-see-here posture is, to those who know him best, classic Biden when things are going well. “It’s somewhat of a distraction, but he recognizes it’s a necessary, constitutional distraction,” said Doug Jones, the Democratic ex-senator from Alabama who’s known Biden since the ’70s. Biden and his top advisers believe Americans are far more focused on the pandemic and the economy than on Trump’s trial. Just as it did during the campaign as Trump’s antics escalated, polling has borne the premise out: His approval rating is higher than Trump’s ever was, including within his own party. Gallup found that 98 percent of Democrats are satisfied with his work so far. And Biden’s advisers are happy to implicitly embrace the contrast of his out-of-the-spotlight management with Trump’s chaos — after all, that’s how the Democrat won, they’ll remind anyone who asks.
And, as a longtime former senator with a sometimes over-the-top reverence for D.C. tradition, Biden is loath to risk being seen as trying to unduly influence the jurors. Senators, too, are sensitive to even the perception of such pressure. If he spoke up at all, “it would be seen as lobbying or influencing,” Jones said. Neither Biden’s White House nor his DNC sent any messaging guidance to Senate Democrats during the impeachment, and even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s talking-points email to his colleagues reinforced the point that Biden’s attention had to be elsewhere. “Today the House impeachment managers presented powerful arguments in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump and reaffirmed that in order to have unity and healing we must first have truth and accountability. Senate Democrats are committed to continuing the trial while also working on President Biden’s American Rescue Plan to get COVID-19 relief to the American people,” the February 9 document read, according to a copy obtained by New York. “That’s the way our system is designed — an impeachment is a congressional function,” said Colorado representative Jason Crow, who was a manager of Trump’s first impeachment and who, as a former Army Ranger, thought about using his pen as a weapon for defending his colleagues as rioters tried to break into the House floor last month. “Our work continues and President Biden is doing exactly what voters elected him to do.” It’s a relief, Crow said. “He’s doing the work. He doesn’t need to tweet about it all the time, just get the job done.”
Still, this might all be fleeting. No one close to Biden is under any illusion that Trump, or Trumpism, has truly disappeared, or that they won’t have to keep dealing with the fallout from the attack on the Capitol. It shook Biden in particular — he’d spent 36 years there as a senator, and he saw in the images a parallel to the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville that pushed him to run in the first place. So he is paying attention when he has time. On Wednesday, he watched the evening news and caught up on the security footage revealed by the House Democrats. In the Oval Office the next morning, he suggested it might have been powerful enough to change some Republicans jurors’ minds. (Jones, who left the Senate last month, said his former GOP colleagues may have been “shaken but not stirred” by the day’s arguments.)
Biden’s inner circle thinks he’ll probably have to weigh in more fully on the trial’s conclusion. So they are watching the coverage, if often with the volume lowered. When I called one White House aide to gauge the building’s impression of the trial’s second day, there was a pause on the line before the staffer admitted, “I mean, I have it on. But I have other shit to do.” Still others, who spent years working on Capitol Hill, were shaken all over again by the scenes of the coup attempt on TV, even if they spent most of their days in meetings about vaccinations or budget planning; the TVs in the West Wing and on Air Force One have been switched from Fox, mostly to CNN, where the proceedings have been inescapable. The White House recently restarted its print subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post, complete with their banner headlines about the trial, too.
At the highest levels, Biden’s team’s bet is that the short-run awkwardness of the president’s refusal to engage is worth the temporary retreat from the headlines. If he can float above the muck of this unwinnable fight over Trump, the thinking goes, perhaps he can maintain some goodwill — or at least détente — with the few centrist, bipartisanship-worshipping Democratic lawmakers, and maybe a tiny handful of Republicans, whom he might need on his side to pass pieces of his COVID-relief plan or subsequent big-ticket measures. (Witness: On Thursday morning, Oklahoma’s very conservative senator Jim Inhofe gushed that their meeting on infrastructure was “very good, very good,” in part because “I’ve known the president forever, and we’ve worked on highway bills before.”)
With painful memories of 2009’s brutal fights over the economic stimulus and then Obamacare never far from Biden’s mind, the goal is to maintain the president’s political capital for as long as he can. For now, before any of his major legislation has come up for a vote, that’s often meant making sure he’s not swatting at the news of the day. Inside the White House, Biden has instructed staff to let him delegate and make sure he’s not micromanaging, and he’s directed members of his COVID team to brief the press regularly instead of insisting on that spotlight for himself.
It also means bottling up distractions as soon as they arise. When Biden cited his predecessor’s “erratic behavior” and said there was “no need” for Trump to keep access to intelligence briefings in a CBS interview pegged to the Super Bowl, Psaki quickly issued a statement taking the political sting out of the remark. Biden “has deep trust in his own intelligence team to make a determination about how to provide intelligence information if at any point the former president requests a briefing,” she said. Other diversions carry lower stakes but no less headache potential: The next day, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, retweeted a Post columnist floating a Kamala Harris–Pete Buttigieg ticket for 2028. Once D.C. reporters spotted the RT, and began appending eyeball emojis to the outrageously premature gag, he quickly deleted it.