Biden campaign tries new tactic: Deploying Robert De Niro outside courthouse as Trump trial closing arguments begin

Robert De Niro speaks in support of President Joe Biden outside of Manhattan Criminal Court as former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends his criminal trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments in New York City, on May 28. - Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

After months of either ignoring or poking fun at former President Donald Trump’s criminal trial, the Biden campaign on Tuesday decided for the first time to stage a news conference about Trump’s record outside the courthouse where closing arguments were taking place.

The feisty event, which featured a surprise appearance from actor-turned-campaign-surrogate Robert De Niro, was not specifically intended to discuss aspects of the trial, the president’s team insisted. But it was undoubtedly meant to draw attention to the criminal defendant inside the nearby building.

“If Trump returns to the White House, you can kiss these freedoms goodbye that we all take for granted,” De Niro said, with chanting protesters and a car alarm blaring in the background. “And elections — forget about it, that’s all. That’s done, if he gets in, I can tell you right now — he will never leave. He will never leave.”

Previously, Biden’s team had been wary of doing or saying anything that might appear to politicize the former president’s trial. In their view, Trump’s trial would speak for itself, reintroducing the former president and the chaos that surrounds him to voters who may have tuned him out.

Some of Biden’s allies had questioned that notion, however, suggesting Trump had already done plenty to politicize his legal issues and that Biden — if he wanted to capture voters’ attention — would be wise to weigh in as well.

Tuesday’s event amounted to a nod to the second approach.

“The entire news media is camped out here, day in and day out,” campaign communications director Michael Tyler said, explaining the choice to address reporters outside the lower Manhattan courthouse.

Aside from De Niro, who recently narrated an ad slamming Trump, two police offers who were present at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and attacked by pro-Trump rioters were featured: Michael Fanone and Harry Dunn.

“At the end of the day, this election is about Donald Trump and his vision for the office of the president of the United States — not as a public servant who answers to the elected — to the people who elected him, but as an authoritarian, who answers to, and serves only, himself,” Fanone said.

Top Trump advisers Jason Miller, Steven Cheung and Karoline Leavitt spoke to reporters immediately after the news conference. Miller bashed the two-time Oscar winner.

“The best they can do is roll out a washed up actor,” Miller said.

He echoed Trump’s attacks on Judge Juan Merchan as “corrupt” and “conflicted,” and continued to argue the case was “complete garbage.”

The president’s team sees an opening once the trial concludes to become more aggressive in their framing of Trump as a threat to democracy, all leading up to the CNN debate on June 27. On everything from the ads the campaign runs to the messaging and rhetoric that comes from the president himself to growing the campaign’s infrastructure, a person familiar with the campaign’s thinking said, the Biden team recognizes that once the Trump trial — and the aggressive media coverage of it — is over, there will be more room and opportunities to make their case to the American people ahead of November.

Biden campaign officials are still grappling with the reality, this person said, that a substantial part of the population still doesn’t see that the choice on Election Day will be between Biden and Trump.

And while the campaign will need to calibrate its messaging and strategy based on how exactly Trump’s trial ends, this person insisted that at the end of the day, the thrust of their case against the former president won’t change — whether Trump emerges a convicted felon or not.

De Niro presented the main theme of that messaging on Tuesday. He blasted the former president as “a tyrant” and “a coward,” telling reporters that as New Yorkers, they tolerated the former real estate mogul as “just another grubby real estate hustler masquerading as a big shot, a two-bit playboy lying his way into the tabloids.”

And he said that the stakes of November’s election are what prompted him to join the campaign for a new ad released last week.

“That’s why I needed to be involved and wanted to be involved in the new Biden-Harris ad, because it shows the violence of Trump and reminds us that he’d use violence against anyone who stands in the way of his megalomania and greed,” De Niro said. “You think Trump ever threw a punch himself or took one? This guy ran and hid in the White House bunker when there were protesters outside — no way. He doesn’t get blood on his hands. No, he doesn’t. He directs the mob to do his dirty work for him.”

As CNN reported on Friday, the Biden campaign effectively launched the start of that next phase by releasing a scorching new ad called “Snapped,” narrated by Niro.

“We knew Trump was out of control when he was president,” De Niro says over a shot of Trump behind the Resolute Desk. “Then he lost the 2020 election and snapped.”

The ad describes Trump as “desperately” trying to cling to power while showing images of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The phrases “dictator” and “terminate the Constitution” flash on screen, followed by a clip of Trump saying, “If I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”

Fanone, a former Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Officer who was attacked during the January 6 insurrection, said that he was “just one representative of the hundreds of police officers that were assaulted that day by Donald Trump’s supporters inspired by his lies, the lies that continue to this day to inspire my fellow Americans to turn against their fellow Americans, to turn against police officers.”

Dunn, a former US Capitol Police officer, called Trump “the greatest threat to our democracy and the safety of communities across the country today.”

“He has encouraged and continues to encourage political violence. We’ve been called traitors – just today. We were all called traitors on January 6, for doing our job,” Dunn said. “Political violence is never acceptable, but you have a presidential candidate that champions it, that encourages it, that supports it. We cannot have that.”

Earlier Tuesday, Biden’s reelection campaign said it was enlisting police officers working at the US Capitol on January 6 to stump for Biden across battleground states in the coming weeks.

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell and officer Danny Hodges also plan to join Dunn in telling voters that Trump poses a threat to democracy and to their fundamental rights as Americans. Dunn and Gonell sustained injuries during the attack on the Capitol and have since retired from the Capitol Police. Hodges continues to serve with DC’s Metropolitan Police Department.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.

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