“I have no comment on that,” Biden said. “No. I’m not going to talk about the Trump indictment,” when asked again. “I have no comment on Trump,” he said a final time.
Convinced the best strategy is to stay out of Donald Trump’s legal troubles, the White House is steering clear of Trump’s indictment by a Manhattan grand jury over hush-money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign.
But that calculation will be tested when Biden formally announces his 2024 reelection bid, which he’s widely expected to do in the coming weeks or months. While Trump holds the distinction as the first former president to face a criminal indictment, Biden could make different history: the first president squared off against a challenger under indictment.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “I’m sure Trump is going to try to bait him into speaking. He’s not going to make it easy to stay quiet. But I think Biden’s predilection is to try to stay out of this as much as possible.”
Why Biden is staying quiet
By not discussing Trump’s legal matters, Biden is respecting the traditional White House approach not to weigh into pending investigations or influence law enforcement, particularly within a state or local jurisdiction.
Trump, who is set to appear Tuesday in court in New York, faces multiple charges of falsifying business records, including at least one felony offense, the Associated Press reported, citing two people familiar with the matter.
By not engaging, Biden also wants to avoid making comments that Republicans could use to reinforce their accusations of a politically biased justice system and Trump “witch hunt.”
“He doesn’t want to give Republicans anything to work with,” said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University. “They are hypersensitive of anything that looks like the politicization of the judiciary.”
Republicans rally around Trump after indictment
Trump immediately made the indictment central to his 2024 candidacy, accusing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of “political persecution and election interference” and using the indictment in repeated fundraising emails to donors.
Republicans across the board, even potential opponents in the Republican primary, rallied around Trump to decry the “weaponization” of the government against the former president.
“The unprecedented indictment of a former President of the United States, on a campaign finance issue, is an outrage,” former Vice President Mike Pence, who is weighing a presidential bid, said in an interview on CNN.
If Biden remains silent then Trump’s claims of a rigged justice system – almost certain to ramp up heading into 2024 – would go unchecked by the likely Democratic standard-bearer.
“At some point, he’ll have to, within limits, offer some strong words that this is a legal process playing out, it’s not a political process,” Zelizer said. “He’ll have to walk the line of spreading that message, especially as the campaign gets underway, without overwhelming the story and becoming the center of attention.”
2024 campaign could change Biden’s calculus
Trump’s indictment could further solidify his standing in the Republican primary with his core supporters who might see him as a martyr. Multiple polls ahead of the indictment showed Trump extending his lead over the next closest contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But it could also boost Biden’s message for the general election. Trump’s indictment helps crystalize the contrast Biden hopes to make in 2024 between a White House that he’ll argue restored competence versus the chaos of Trump.
“Of course he’s not going to stay silent,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, arguing Biden doesn’t want to talk now and tip Republicans off to his strategy so far out from the 2024 election.
Sabato said Biden can tie Trump’s indictment – and potential conviction – to other unsavory actions from the former president including efforts to overturn the 2020 election. “It will be about contempt for the law. You can paint a devastating picture of him.”
Still, Democrats see no upside in Biden talking about Trump’s indictment yet.
“Joe Biden can contrast himself as a law-abiding president with Donald Trump who was a relatively lawless president and lawless individual, but he does not need to engage in overheated rhetoric at this stage,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic campaign strategist. “There’s no need for Joe Biden to jump in front of a moving train here.”
Just the beginning?
Of course, Trump’s indictment in New York might not be the only charges against the 2024 Republican frontrunner that Biden will have to figure out how to confront.
A grand jury in Georgia is investigating the pressure that Trump put on Georgia election officials to overturn his loss to Biden. And in Washington, the Justice Department is investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents after he left the White House and efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat.
Sabato said Biden and Democrats can use Trump’s legal issues against other Republicans who tied themselves closely to the former president politically.
But now isn’t the time.
“You want to remind people of what happened. You want to tag them with Trump. And if you start now, it’s older than summer reruns,” he said.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.