Opinion: This Is How Biden Should Use Trump’s Conviction Against Him

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

The Trump verdict continues to send shockwaves across the American political landscape—and on Friday, at his rambling Trump Tower press conference, the convicted felon continued to complain, decrying (absurdly, falsely) a “rigged” court that had done him wrong. As Joe Biden said afterward, “It is reckless, it is dangerous, it is irresponsible for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don't like the verdict. The justice system should be respected and we should never allow anyone to tear it down.”

This, of course, is precisely what Trump and his supporters want to do to the rule of law, as revealed in the widely differing reactions of America’s two political parties to the verdict. The GOP offered a coordinated message condemning the verdict, amplifying its impact and making it clear that attacking the rule of law in America is now a platform plank of the party. Democrats from the White House on down largely offered measured responses praising the judge and jurors and celebrating that our system of justice worked as it should.

The word from the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue immediately after the verdict was, “We respect the rule of law, and have no additional comment.” The Biden campaign offered a terse “No one is above the law.” Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House leader asserted, according to the Huffington Post, that “responsible leadership requires the verdict to be respected.” The article went on to quote a “Democratic aide” as saying, “What is the point of crowing? As an important fact, it makes its own point.”

However, after Trump had spoken Friday, the Biden campaign wrote to supporters in a fundraising appeal, “Donald Trump is threatening our democracy.”

GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS! Trump a Convicted Criminal

There is also a growing chorus of voices arguing that Democrats should play up the guilty verdict. USA Today columnist Rex Huppke wrote, “Democrats should make sure (Trump’s status as a convicted felon is) all but stamped on his forehead. They should shout it from the rooftops, blast it out in every ad on every available platform. No voters should enter a polling place without knowing full well their options are between Democratic President Joe Biden and a convicted felon.

At The New Republic, Greg Sargent argued persuasively that because Trump’s conviction “shatters the myth of his invincibility” it should be used against him “ruthlessly and effectively.” (Note: my company produces Greg Sargent’s daily TNR podcast “The Daily Blast.”)

In another instance of a critique of the comparatively low-key Dem response, one “democratic strategist” texted Semafor that “the party was making a mistake by not attacking Trump more directly over his conviction.”

In this instance, both sides of this debate are correct.

It is appropriate and also necessary for Democratic office holders, especially the president and those directly associated with him, to offer the subdued reaction they did. First, because that’s how senior officials who have sworn an oath to the Constitution traditionally react to such matters in the judiciary… and therefore the remarks stand in stark contrast to the orchestrated litany of GOP attacks on the rule of law in America that emanated from every corner of the GOP during the hours immediately following the verdict.

Next, it is vitally important that the White House underscore through its actions that as in all judicial matters it plays a hands-off role—that this trial and all other trials involving Trump are not in any way being interfered with for political reasons despite GOP lies to the contrary. (The fact that the Hunter Biden trial begins next week neatly and compellingly provides evidence of that fact.)

Finally, as the commentator in the Huffington Post noted, there is no need for the president, the vice president, or the White House to emphasize that Trump is a convicted felon because it is a label that has been forever affixed to his name. Those who don’t care, won’t care. But for those to whom it matters, the news was so massive that it cannot be ignored and it will not be forgotten.

Should the President make passing reference to it when it is relevant? Of course. Should he and his surrogates condemn the orchestrated MAGA GOP attack on the rule of law in America, on the jurors who did their duty, on the prosecutors who diligently compiled and presented the evidence in the case? Definitely. The disgraceful Republican onslaught—coordinated across all 50 GOP state parties—cuts to one of the core issues the White House does intend to emphasize: the threat Trump and his MAGA followers pose to our institutions and to democracy in America. It should be highlighted from dawn to dusk because it is so pernicious and dangerous.

But we should also be clear on the fact that campaign 2024 is not solely about pronouncements by the presidential candidates. The public debate will include, thanks to social media, millions of voices. The most prominent of those—and average Democrats with just a handful of followers—on the leading web-based platforms do not work within the constraints that should and do affect the president and other senior officials.

The fact that Trump is a felon, sexual abuser, fraudster, and a traitor, the fact of all of his 91 felony indictments, the intersection of his criminal and legal record with his two impeachments, and his lifetime of deceit, corruption, and business failure, his role as a coup plotter, as author of the big lie, his theft of national secrets… all these things compose the picture of who Trump is that must be conveyed as Huppke and Sargent and others argue.

Down-ballot Democrats, senatorial and congressional candidates who see the benefit of hammering home the terrible reality of what another Trump term would mean should definitely incorporate this week’s verdict into their messaging. So too should independent political groups, the producers of the videos and other statements that will populate our information ecosystem from now through Election Day.

In those cases, it is not merely about presenting the fact that Trump is a convicted felon. It is about weaving that fact into the broader narrative of his shameful character and of the threat another four years in office of this reprobate would mean.

So, yes, while the president and senior officials conduct themselves with the dignity and responsibilities their offices demand and thus distinguish themselves from their unprincipled opponents, we should hear a chorus of voices from across the entire Democratic Party emphasizing that whereas Trump’s conviction was a historical first, we cannot afford to set another precedent by making Trump the first convicted felon to be elected president of the United States.

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