Biden Declares Trump Verdict a Victory for the Rule of Law

Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing two federal cases against former President Donald Trump, during the news conference announcing Trump’s indictment, in Washington, Aug. 1, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing two federal cases against former President Donald Trump, during the news conference announcing Trump’s indictment, in Washington, Aug. 1, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden declared Friday that a New York jury’s guilty verdict against former President Donald Trump should be respected and denounced Republican efforts to undermine the justice system as “reckless,” “dangerous” and “irresponsible.”

Breaking his long silence over Trump’s legal troubles, Biden portrayed the first conviction of a former president as a victory for the rule of law. He emphasized that it was a state case, not a federal case brought by his administration, and that Trump had every chance to defend himself.

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“The American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed,” Biden said in a televised statement from the White House.

“It was heard by a jury of 12 citizens, 12 Americans, 12 people like you, like millions of Americans who’ve served on juries,” he said of the case. “This jury was chosen the same way every jury in America is chosen. There’s a process that Donald Trump’s attorney was part of. The jury heard five weeks of evidence, five weeks. And after careful deliberation, the jury reached a unanimous verdict. They found Donald Trump guilty on all 34 felony counts.”

While he may have relished noting that his opponent in this fall’s election was found guilty on all counts, Biden made no mention of the substance of the case, in which Trump was convicted of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to a porn actor who claimed to have had an affair with him. Instead, Biden focused on the efforts by the former president and his allies to discredit the prosecution and the judgment of the jury by painting the process as a political witch hunt.

“It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don’t like the verdict,” Biden said. “Our justice system has endured for nearly 250 years, and it literally is the cornerstone of America. Our justice system, the justice system, should be respected, and we should never allow anyone to tear it down. As simple as that. That’s America. That’s who we are.”

The president’s decision to address the outcome of the trial directly was a major strategic shift. Ever since Trump was charged in this first of four indictments brought against him by state and federal prosecutors over the past year, Biden has resolutely refused to discuss the matters. His hope was to stay above the fray and to avoid fueling the former president’s false claims that the White House was directing the prosecutions.

As late as Thursday evening, a Biden adviser said in an interview that the president was not expected to make a formal, scripted statement on television about the verdict, although the adviser added that it was possible the president might respond to questions from reporters about it. But evidently, Biden decided to take on the issue directly rather than leaving it to surrogates.

Some Democratic strategists have encouraged him to speak out, arguing that he had a responsibility as the president to talk to the country about a moment of great import that has the potential to tear at the national fabric.

“I may be alone in this, but I think he should address the convictions with some sobriety,” David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president, said before the president’s statement. “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.”

Biden has given voice to such principles before, but in this case, he has found 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 Biden’s point of view, it has been the worst of both worlds, a situation presenting more threat than opportunity.

Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director for Hillary Clinton, said 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, Trump has been trying to goad 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 Biden appointed the attorney general who has overseen the two federal cases against 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 Trump from claiming the opposite moments after his conviction 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 Trump, blaming the prosecution on 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 Biden, given that the same department is putting his own son Hunter on trial Monday on federal gun charges.

Rather than play into Trump’s conspiracy theory, the president initially left it to aides Thursday night to make a formal reaction to the verdict. Ian Sams, a spokesperson 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 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 spokesperson 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 directly did not stop Biden from trying to raise money from donors, just as his opponent was already doing. Within hours of the jury’s pronouncement, Biden sent the first of several solicitations to supporters along the lines of 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,” Biden said, adding that “Donald Trump’s supporters are fired up and likely setting fundraising records for his campaign.”

The Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the campaign did 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 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 Trump’s status as a convicted felon, nor did he imagine that 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, Biden and his team have shown more willingness to poke at Trump’s criminal troubles in recent weeks. The president has mocked his predecessor for falling asleep during the trial (“Sleepy Don”) and sent actor Robert De Niro to hold a feisty news conference at the courthouse assailing Trump (“guilty and we all know it”).

The president spoke Friday afternoon shortly after returning to Washington from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to meet with the visiting prime minister of Belgium and host a celebration of the Kansas City Chiefs. His comments on the Trump verdict came just before he announced the latest move toward resolving the war in the Gaza Strip.

Biden is to 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,” 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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