Biden denounces immunity ruling amid Democrats' doubts that he can beat Trump

Supporters hold up signs as President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, June. 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley)
Supporters hold up signs as President Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday. (Matt Kelley / Associated Press)

Monday’s Supreme Court decision giving Donald Trump immunity for past and potentially future presidential acts gave Democrats more urgency to defeat him, just as new polling showed that last week's debate intensified voters’ concerns that President Biden may not be the man to do it.

The dueling pieces of news underscored the conundrum the party has been staring down for months: Evidence that Trump will have unchecked power in a potential second term energizes the Democratic base. But the increasingly high import of the election makes the choice to stick with Biden appear all the more risky.

“You can't afford to lose," said Mark Buell, an influential Bay Area Democratic donor and fundraiser. "In either case, you're still down to the risk assessment of who has a better chance — another candidate or Biden?”

In a brief televised address at the White House on Monday night, Biden said the Supreme Court decision on immunity meant "there are virtually no limits" on a president's actions. "This is a fundamentally new principle. And it's a dangerous precedent."

He said the public had a “right to know" Trump's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, though a trial probably will not take place before the November election.

“I know I will respect the limits of presidential power as I have for the 3½ years, but any president, including Donald Trump, will now be free to ignore the law,” he said.

In denouncing the 6-3 decision, Biden concluded by saying, "May God preserve our democracy."

Mark Gonzalez, the recently departed Los Angeles County Democratic Party chair and California state director for Biden's 2020 campaign, said he spent the weekend calming nerves of fellow Democrats. The ruling Monday only reaffirmed the stakes to people who were concerned about Biden's fitness for the job and poor political standing, he said. A CBS poll released Sunday showed a growing share of voters — 72% — say Biden does not have the cognitive ability to serve as president, compared with 49% who say that about Trump.

Read more: Supreme Court gives Trump broad immunity from prosecution — for the past and perhaps future

"The reality is that, whether they're a delegate or an activist or a $5 donor, they're afraid," Gonzalez said of the people he spoke with over the weekend. "They are scared that we need a stronger person to represent the Democratic Party so that we can prevail in November."

Gonzalez said Monday "is a good reminder that we need to be able to ... be prepared, and know that the other side is going to do everything that they can to take us down. We cannot afford to lose democracy because of mistakes at this one debate."

The Biden campaign scheduled a media call within minutes of Monday's ruling in hopes of shifting attention from the president's poor debate performance on Thursday to Trump, whom they characterized as a singular threat to democracy. The ruling that he could not face prosecution for official acts would only embolden him to carry out threats to prosecute enemies and act like a dictator on his first day in office if he wins a second term, officials argued.

"This is not a drill," said Harry Dunn, a police officer who defended the Capitol on Jan. 6 and has become a surrogate for Democrats. "Donald Trump is the single greatest threat to the United States of America in a generation. We can't let him anywhere near the Oval Office again."

Quentin Fulks, principal deputy campaign manager for Biden-Harris 2024, pointed to a new Jan. 6-focused advertisement the campaign released Monday and to heightened efforts to organize volunteers in battleground states.

But many Democrats have urged the president to appear at more rallies and give more adversarial media interviews to demonstrate his vitality. Fulks, asked during the call whether Biden had any plans to increase his public engagement schedule with town halls and other unscripted encounters, said he had no changes to announce.

A USA Today poll conducted Friday through Sunday found 54% of registered voters want Biden to be replaced as the nominee, compared with 37% who want him on the ballot. For Trump, the split was 51% to 46% in favor of removing him from the ballot, despite Trump's record as a convicted felon who remains unwilling to concede that he lost the 2020 election.

Trump, 78, had stronger support within his own party than Biden, 81, did in his. The best news for Biden is that the question was a virtual tie among independent voters — with 64% saying they wanted Biden replaced and 63% wanting Trump replaced.

Despite growing concerns among allies, Biden has shown no signs he is willing to step aside and party rules would make it almost impossible to remove him from the ballot without his consent. A source familiar with a weekend Biden family summit held at Camp David confirmed reporting that the president's family is determined that he remain in the race, calling it "a united front."

Buell, who has been vocal about the need to assess swing state polls in the coming days, believes there is still a chance Biden would agree to withdraw if the data suggest it's the best way to defeat Trump.

“The people around Biden, they may privately see it that way, but publicly of course they're all singing the song that he's fine," Buell said. "And I think they have to until such time as he says he wants to pull the plug.”

Read more: Trump ally Stephen Bannon surrenders to federal prison to serve 4-month sentence

Still, some of the party faithful are undaunted. Susan Reina, an activist in the Antelope Valley who oversees voter registration efforts in a competitive congressional district, said it was essential to remind voters that it comes down to a binary choice. Division within the Democratic Party plays into the hands of Republicans who have circled the wagons around Trump, she said.

Monday's court decision gave Trump yet another political advantage. It all but guaranteed delay past November of Trump's trial on accusations that he and his political associates worked to subvert the 2020 election.

For Reina and others, this means that beating the former president at the ballot box is even more essential "so that we in this country have the freedoms that we have today."

This article includes reporting from the Associated Press. Bierman reported from Washington, Oreskes from Los Angeles.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.