Analysis: Biden's strategic silence on Trump may be tested

U.S. President Biden departs White House to visit Mississippi
Members of the media ask questions to U.S. President Joe Biden as he walks to the Marine One helicopter to depart for travel to Mississippi to view tornado damage, from the White House in Washington, U.S., March 31, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - When Joe Biden was asked on Friday morning about the impact that the indictment of his White House predecessor and political rival Donald Trump would have on America, the U.S. president had an emphatic response: no comment.

"I'm not going to talk about Trump's indictment," Biden elaborated after being pressed several times by reporters.

Biden was continuing a strategy his White House has honed on Trump over two years - silence is golden. Now that Trump has been indicted in a New York hush money case, White House officials indicate they plan to follow the same "keep quiet and carry on" playbook.

That plan could be tested in the days ahead, as Republicans rally around Trump, attack the U.S. judicial system, and some, including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, make plans for a New York City protest on Tuesday - the day the former president is due in court in Manhattan - that some fear could turn violent.

Biden, a Democrat, won the presidency in 2020 by directly attacking Trump, promising to restore the "soul of America" after his predecessor's chaotic four years in office. As president, Biden has lambasted the former president's "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) allies and policies, but rarely Trump himself.

Democratic strategists said the deliberate silence by Biden and his team made political sense.

"The administration should continue to do what they've done all along, focusing on governing and addressing Americans' concerns," Democratic strategist Karen Finney said. "This is a moment to reassure Americans by continuing to demonstrate what strong, stable, effective leadership looks like."

Biden is set to travel on Monday to a manufacturing facility in Minnesota and is expected to be in the White House on Tuesday, when Trump is due to turn himself in to authorities in New York, where a grand jury indicted him.

"They've been smart to stay out of it," Democratic strategist Lis Smith said of the White House strategy on Trump. "In 2020, Joe Biden benefited from voters' exhaustion with the chaos of the Trump administration. The split screen of President Biden focused on doing his job well versus Trump and the Republican Party in chaos will only help him."

Trump as president publicly referred to Biden as a criminal and labeled protesters "thugs." Trump faces other investigations related to his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters and his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden.

The White House has said it will not comment on Trump because his actions are being investigated by Biden's own Justice Department, which the president has pledged to leave independent.

That calculation could shift if Trump supporters upset by the criminal charges erupt in violence and once Biden begins an expected re-election campaign and may be forced eventually to confront Trump directly on a debate stage. Trump is seeking to regain the presidency in 2024.

Biden had not yet been inaugurated as president when the Capitol attack occurred. On that day, Biden urged Trump to call off the rioters, asking him on social media to "go on national television now to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution."

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on Friday about any precautions the federal government may be making, except to say that "we're always prepared" for the prospect of violence. Jean-Pierre reiterated Biden's often-stated support for people to "protest peacefully."

Trump is set to plead not guilty to the charges and has indicated he will not drop out of the race.

Biden views his predecessor as stoking a dangerous movement, and his warnings about "MAGA" extremism are heartfelt, according to two people who have spoken with the president recently.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile noted that Biden has not yet officially declared himself a candidate for the 2024 election and did not need to comment on Trump's predicament.

"President Biden is not a candidate, and while he may or may not have an opinion, I see no reason for the president to put his hands on the scales of justice of another branch of government," Brazile said.

Reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham and Heather Timmons

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Jeff Mason is a White House Correspondent for Reuters. He has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden and the presidential campaigns of Biden, Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. He served as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2016-2017, leading the press corps in advocating for press freedom in the early days of the Trump administration. His and the WHCA's work was recognized with Deutsche Welle's "Freedom of Speech Award." Jeff has asked pointed questions of domestic and foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. He is a winner of the WHCA's “Excellence in Presidential News Coverage Under Deadline Pressure" award and co-winner of the Association for Business Journalists' "Breaking News" award. Jeff began his career in Frankfurt, Germany as a business reporter before being posted to Brussels, Belgium, where he covered the European Union. Jeff appears regularly on television and radio and teaches political journalism at Georgetown University. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former Fulbright scholar.